The first time you see Eli and Charlie Sisters, they are raining down death in the night. It’s 1851, somewhere in the Oregon Territory, and the sky is as black as a bottomless well. Voices and gunfire puncture the gloom as Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) descend, entering a cabin and shooting dead one man after another. By the time the ground is littered with corpses, a nearby barn has caught fire and so has a stable of unfortunate horses. We sure messed that up, Eli ruefully observes as the uneasy anti-heroes of ‘The Sisters Brothers’ are swallowed up by darkness.
French director Jacques Audiard (‘A Prophet’), making his English-language debut, grabs you quickly in a busily plotted movie that tracks the Sisters as they pursue others. They work for the Commodore (a foreboding Rutger Hauer), an enigmatic kingpin with an apparently limitless number of enemies for Eli and Charlie to hunt down. The sly, smiley Charlie is the Commodore’s favourite and perhaps the movie’s, too, just because killing comes naturally to him. The brothers have an appetite for destruction, but only Eli gets indigestion. Delicately played by Reilly, who opens up his character one emotion at a time, Eli is a seeming conundrum; he’s also the movie’s ace in the hole.
Westerns were made for bloodshed, and ‘The Sisters Brothers’ delivers as expected. After some fussing and narrative table setting — the Commodore makes Charlie the lead man on their next assignment, creating some jokey sibling jostling — the movie settles back down to its deadly business. The brothers are to meet John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a detective the Commodore has hired to track down Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). It’s unclear what the Commodore wants with Hermann and whether he’s been aggrieved or robbed. Like the audience, Eli has been left in the dark about some details, a shared ignorance that hints where our sympathies should land.
The mission, as Charlie likes to call the hunt, grows tricky. Adapted for the screen by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain from the novel by Patrick deWitt, the narrative soon forks. As Charlie and Eli gallop toward gold-rushing California (the movie was shot in Spain and Romania), the story begins to regularly switch over to John and Hermann, who meet in a frontier settlement. John, a gentleman graced with one of Gyllenhaal’s mysterious accents, has been tracking Hermann but not nearly stealthily enough. Hermann reaches his hand out to John, having assumed that he might have found a kindred spirit, someone with whom he can speak and commune.
Hermann guesses right. He and John rapidly join forces, and Eli and Charlie are now pursuing two quarries, not one. Each set of men seems to represent starkly different worlds, as if they were emissaries from civilisation and its discontents. John and Hermann speak in soft, measured voices made for drawing-room deliberations. They have stories that emerge vaguely, having gone West like so many others. Western natives, Eli and Charlie behave and speak roughly, their exchanges laced with profanity. The vulgarities never reach the poetically baroque excesses of the HBO show ‘Deadwood,’ but they are vivid enough to put distance between them and genre exemplars like John Wayne.
Despite Audiard’s embrace of contemporary norms that would have been out of place in a Wayne Western — the amusingly deployed coarse language, the shots to the head and sprays of blood — he isn’t attempting to rewrite genre in ‘The Sisters Brothers,’ which is one of this movie’s virtues, along with its terrific actors and his sensitive direction of them. Certainly, it doesn’t come across as a self-conscious revisionist Western, an often meaningless category that implies that genres remain static or, worse, that latter-day Westerns are more complex than earlier ones. Tell it to John Ford, whose career spanned much of the 20th century and whose Westerns varied accordingly.
For much of the movie, Audiard instead seems content to play with genre tropes. He lingers on its mud and its blood, making each glisten. He slips in an occasional iris shot and liquid slow motion, and folds in ideas about brotherhood, masculinity and the catastrophic, perhaps unpayable debt exacted by a violent past. Eli and Charlie’s pursuit gives the movie urgency and visual appeal as open vistas give way to snowy mountains, the dirty streets of San Francisco and a wilderness that prospectors are rapidly spoiling. The brothers also visit a saloon where Charlie gets drunk while Eli hires a prostitute (Allison Tolman), but this is no movie for women, who just embroider its edges.
In time, Eli and Charlie catch up with John and Hermann, leading to the most sustained pleasurable interlude. A great deal of the movie’s enjoyment comes from its four principals, who work well when paired off but are particularly appealing in a group. After expediently bonding in a gunfight, the four characters settle into a little bit of paradise and an easy camaraderie that suggests what kind of world they could build together. For a while, Charlie, an often voluble, charismatic psychopath, even quiets down, allowing the men to drink, laugh and think about the Utopia that John and Hermann hope to build. They want to build it in Dallas, a dream of a future that is as absurd as it is tragically doomed.
Don’t miss it
‘The Sisters Brothers’ releases in the UAE on January 3.