Presenting a simple story with style, adventure, and heart.
Eschewing expectations the 2018 Western dramedy ‘The Sisters Brothers‘ becomes more than the sum of its parts. Despite an overdependence on genre tropes, especially early on, the poignant characters, perfectionistic period design, exquisite cinematography, and a lasting, impactful finish makes this one of the most surprising films of the year.
When you think of Western comedy, one either goes towards off-the-rails like ‘Blazing Saddles’ or to more subtle fare like ‘Silverado’. However, by building an entire film around two mismatched brothers and their quirky, left turn adventures offers an oddly compelling and profoundly touching character drama punctuated by moments of absurdity and violence. Something akin to more thoughtful Westerns, a la ‘Open Range’.
Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly, superb) is the wiser, more restrained brother who acts the protector for the quick to violence, buried in drink Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix). Yet, after one screw-up too many, Charlie is promoted to gang-leader before their elusive boss, “The Commodore” (Rutger Hauer, in cameo) sends them through Oregon on an important job in the year 1851.
So the Sisters brothers journey to join up with ally scout John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) and then off to pursue and kill the “thief” Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed). However, things prove to be not quite so simple.
Their mission sends them into beautiful vistas (shot exclusively in Europe with Romania, France, and Spain offering austere wilderness beauty), dusty Gold Rush towns and taverns, and the occasional shoot-out. Against this picturesque background these four characters each develop dynamic, well-rounded character arcs. This is not a tale of good and bad; instead it’s a story of transformation. The presentation is so subdued that it may not hit you until the final moment how truly special this film is.
French filmmaker Jacques Audiard first wowed me with his 2005 crime drama ‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped’. Another film that superficially pretends to be one thing but expertly reveals itself to be more. I applaud any film that can still surprise me. And one done with such a light touch and deft hand is pure delight.
Don’t rush into ‘The Sisters Brothers‘ (it really does sound like the Western bastard child of ‘Step Brothers’) expecting a silly comedy or some aggressively violent gunfighter treatise. It is a modest tale told with flair, over a grand scenic palette, and through provocative, fierce honesty. It leaves its mark.