No genre of cinema feels more inherently American than the Western. A romanticised cinematic art form, it feels an unlikely and yet oh-so-right first deviation into Hollywood, for French auteur Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone).
The Sisters Brothers is set in Oregon in the 1850s, where we meet the infamous assassins and brothers who have the surname Sisters, who are after their latest target, the equally as wonderfully named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). En route to San Francisco, Eli and Charlie (played by John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix, respectively) find themselves with an ulterior motive, after a compelling meeting with the adventurer John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), as they realise that the supposed target may be better alive than dead, for the chemist is working on a formula that will make gold glow fluorescent in water. Sounds relatively straightforward, right? Wrong.
This playful endeavour has Audiard, known for his searingly realistic, profoundly moving films enjoying what can best be described as a day off, as a film that grows increasingly more surreal and comedic as it progresses. Though unexpected, it turns out he’s the perfect filmmaker to bring this tale to life, as coming in to the Western genre from an outsider’s perspective enriches the tale with an unwavering affection for cinema, informed primarily through the art-form as opposed to real life, such is the way this genre is so woven into the fabric of classic Hollywood storytelling, in a way that only a foreigner could perceive it.
And yet at its core, this narrative is centred around familiar, universal themes, as not only is this a bittersweet take on brotherly love, but it’s about desire, taking such a renowned cinematic device, in what is quite literally a film about men hunting for treasure. This may be the director’s first English language endeavour, yet it’s speaking a language that we can all recognise; desperation. But it’s these themes that give the film a timeless feel, and why this genre has always been so popular, connecting us to these far away lands through intrinsic human desires, and why video-game Red Dead Redemption 2, for example, has been such a huge success. These are flaws we can relate to, sentiments that transcends timeframes and generations.
Audiard cleverly subverts the tropes of the Western too, taking the stoic & heroic protagonist in the John Wayne and Clint Eastwood mould, and instead giving us clumsy, flawed characters who are so much more real, albeit slapstick in their demeanours. But fear not, in line with the genre expectations, it’s still gloriously violent, with one helluva death toll.
And yet it remains such an eccentric and funny film that doesn’t compromise on its moving or profound elements, encapsulated by Reilly, who is all of those things and more (there’s one scene where he’s shaving that stands out in this regard). All four of the leading performances are, unsurprisingly, fantastic, and the chemistry is real and beguiling. Oh, and the ending? Well, without giving anything away at all, just make sure you don’t slip off before the credits roll.