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Review: The Sisters Brothers (2018)

The Sisters Brothers (2018)

Directed by: Jacques Audiard

Premise: Based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt. In 1850’s Oregon, a pair of hitmen (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix) kills people on behalf of an unscrupulous businessman. They pursue a chemist (Riz Ahmed) who has developed a chemical compound to identify gold deposits.

What Works: The Sisters Brothers is a western and it works with some of the familiar elements of the genre but the film has a unique approach that makes it fresh. This begins with the cast. John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix play Eli and Charlie Sisters, a pair of brothers who make a living as hitmen. Reilly and Phoenix are not the stereotypical grizzled gunman of a Clint Eastwood or John Wayne picture. They are both a bit goofy and the story catches up with the Sisters brothers as Eli (Reilly) has a personal crisis. He realizes that the life of a hitman is destined to be short and he looks for other career options. But Eli’s relationship with Charlie (Phoenix) is fractious; Charlie is an erratic drunk who takes pleasure in killing and resents Eli’s desire for a safer and more stable existence. Although actors Reilly and Phoenix don’t look much like one another they do have a convincing brotherly rapport and there is a lot of depth and complexity to their relationship. On their journey, the brothers encounter various situations and adventures including a visit to a kooky frontier town. The Sisters Brothers mixes the action and drama with a goofy sense of humor. The movie isn’t a comedy and the humor is mordant in a way that suits the rest of the picture. One of the outstanding qualities of this film is its management of the tone. Given the presence of John C. Reilly, it’s quite easy to imagine a version of The Sisters Brothers as one of the actor’s collaborations with Will Ferrell but this is something much better than that. The movie is a lot of fun but it’s also soulful; the comedy is underlined by tragedy and its violence has gravitas.

What Doesn’t: There is a critical reversal as the story enters its third act. To that point, The Sisters Brothers is about the title characters pursuing the chemist with instructions to kill him and steal his formula. Those plans are upended in the final stretch of the story but it’s not quite credible. The filmmakers speed through that part of the film so the story doesn’t get stuck in its logical lapse but it is there nevertheless. We don’t get enough of the Commodore, the brothers’ employer. His face is shown but he’s never established as a character. The Commodore is spoken of but not in ways that make him a threat. The picture might have benefitted from creating a sense of mystery and fear around the character like Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects

DVD extras: Featurettes, interviews, an image gallery, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: The Sister Brothers ought to play for viewers who wouldn’t normally watch westerns. It has a pair of terrific performances by John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix and the filmmakers balance action and comedy to create a unique movie. 

Episode: #746 (April 21, 2019)