“Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home” — John Howard Payne
The Smothers Brothers they are not. Brothers Eli (John C. Reilly, “Kong: Skull Island”) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix, “You Were Never Really Here”) Sisters, known to all as the Sisters Brothers, are deadly serious. Hired assassins who prowl the Old West looking for their prey, they operate at the behest of a mysterious figure known only as “The Commodore” (Rutger Hauer, “The Mill and the Cross”) and go about their tasks with keen precision. Winner of the Silver Lion award for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival, Jacques Audiard’s (“Dheepan”) first English-language film The Sisters Brothers is a Western that has more on its mind than Cowboys and Indians. Though it has its share of violence, there is nothing of John Wayne in the film and, may I add, probably very little of the real West.
Written by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain (“Rust and Bone”), the film is set in the Oregon Territory in 1851 during Gold Rush days. Based on Patrick DeWitt’s novel of the same name, the film features the love/hate relationship between two siblings, the volatile and alcoholic Charlie and his more responsible brother Eli, also a killer but with a soft(er) side. While Phoenix does his usual workman like job, Reilly is the real standout in his first lead role, showing a gritty determination with a side of humor and a touch of melancholy.
The film opens with a barrage of gunfire as the two men raid a farm in the middle of the night. Their target is one man but there are six dead bodies at the end, prompting Eli to tell Charlie that we messed that one up pretty good (though he did not use that precise terminology). Always ready to stick it to his brother, Charlie declares that he will be the “lead man” on their next assignment. The brothers are far from incompetent, however, and have a reputation for being a two-pronged killing machine whose interests lie no farther than getting the job done. In their next assignment, the brothers are dispatched to track down, torture, and kill Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”), a chemist and prospector whose invention of a device that is alleged to make gold sparkle and rise to the surface of a lake or river is coveted by the Commodore.
Enhanced by a delightful score by Alexandre Desplat (“Isle of Dogs”), the brothers ride their horses over gorgeous Western vistas shot by cinematographer Benoît Debie, (“Spring Breakers”), though it was actually filmed in Spain and Romania. Capturing Warm, however, has been left to John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal, “Stronger”), an incongruously elegant detective who proceeds to strike up a friendship with the articulate prospector that saves him from torture and death at the hands of the Sisters. Although their friendship may be primarily about a business partnership, Warm entrances Morris with his talk of a utopian community in Texas where everyone is equal, there is no crime or violence and presumably, like in the Norwegian folk song Oleanna, “the cows all like to milk themselves and the hens lay eggs ten times a day.”
Bickering most of the time and leaving a few dead bodies along the way, the Sisters find their way to California and eventually San Francisco where Eli becomes enamored with such modern inventions as flush toilets and toothbrushes, perhaps a signal that their way of life is coming to an end. Eventually meeting up with Morris and Warm, they try their luck at prospecting until greed, as it often does, gets in the way. Eli talks of quitting the life and returning to domesticity, perhaps opening a store with Charlie, but he will have none of it, saying that he has never known any other way of life and wants to keep doing what he’s doing.
The Sisters Brothers takes place in a Western atmosphere we are unfamiliar with. The two men are not one-dimensional gunslingers and opportunists but real people who exhibit a degree of self-reflection. As the film progresses, a transformation occurs that lifts the film to another level. After a poisonous spider finds its way into Eli’s mouth, Charlie is forced to care for him and the brothers bond in a gentler, more caring way. Though The Sisters Brothers attempts to attain a balance between action/adventure and dark comedy, its message of human connection and the longing for a more just society strikes a responsive chord in an age overflowing with cynicism.