French film director Jacques Audiard (the visionary behind “A Prophet” and “The Beat my Heart Skipped”) comes out guns blazing in his American cinematic debut. “The Sisters Brothers”, adapted from the New York Times best-seller by Patrick DeWitt, stars Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Riley as Charlie and Eli Sisters, two outlaws-for-hire on a mission down the California coast to retrieve a chemist by the name of Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed).
The film is packed with your traditional Western motifs: wide landscapes on horseback, buckskinned bad guys, and of course, small town shootouts—but what sets Audiard’s vision apart of from your typical Eastwood or John Wayne picture are his meditations on humanity in a blossoming new world. Warm, like other prospectors during the 20th century, was headed westward in search of gold. It is not until he partners with Sisters-ally John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) that we discover that his search for wealth was only a means to build a communal utopia, something absent of the inequity gripping the newly settled San Francisco.
Similarly, John C. Riley’s performance as Eli Sister, the film’s protagonist, further complicates the cowboy identity through touching displays of intimacy. When he is not tending to his drunken brother, his compassion overextends itself to all walks of life: abused harlots, wounded horses, and even Morris, the man he was hired to hunt down. In an earlier scene, Eli tries to relive the moment his lover gave him her scarf by hiring a prostitute to clumsily recreate the act. The sentiment isn’t lost on her, rather she is scared away by his need for tenderness in an otherwise grueling world.
As the younger of the two, Eli’s role as the responsible one is a clean, balanced juxtaposition to Charlie’s brash and trigger-happy disposition. True to the book, Riley’s performance beckons the phrase “Am I my Sisters brother’s keeper?”, as Eli ponders retiring from the dangerous lifestyle at the risk of leaving his brother to battle it out in the world alone.
Despite the rough backdrop, a surprising element that drives this film is its humor. Much like the novel, the colorful banter between characters as well as playful situations diffuse the tense moments without crossing into a “Stepbrothers” sequel. The biggest laugh in the movie comes from a scene where Eli is introduced to the concept of brushing one’s teeth, which is both charming as it is innocent. I couldn’t help but think of another French filmmaker, Jacques Tati, and his 1967 film “Playtime” which the main character is forced to navigate a hyper-modernized Paris with similarly comedic results. Both characters similarly inhabit worlds that are not quite ready for them yet.
Despite the film staying true to the book, the last twenty minutes or so wander away from DeWitt’s big showdown with the Commodore, the man who hired the brothers, and slowly whimpers away towards the rolling credits. If you pay close attention to the scenes where the brothers are traveling along the mountainous tree-lines, or across the plains of Northern California, by the end of the movie you’ll leave without questioning some of the loose threads Audiard forgot to resolve (a stolen ransom buried in the forest and Eli’s lover are two plot points that left this viewer scratching his head). However, if you too are simply looking for gold, then you’ve struck it in Audiard’s two hour take on the American West.
Graphic by Jooyoung Park