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Film Review: The Sisters Brothers

Liza Dezfouli

English language Western opens the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2019.
Film Review: The Sisters Brothers

John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix in The Sisters Brothers (2018).

The Sisters Brothers is, on the surface, a most un-French film to open the Alliance Française French Film Festival. It’s in English, for a start, and the main actors are from the US and the UK.

Director Jacques Audiard adapted The Sisters Brothers from the novel of the same name by Patrick de Witt, making this his first English language film. It’s 1851, the time of the California gold rush. The Sisters Brothers are gunslingers, famous for shooting sure. Charlie and Eli Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix and John C Reilly), are on a manhunt, looking for a mysterious gold-panner who works without tools, apparently possessing a chemical method of finding river gold. Oregon’s Commodore (Rutger Hauer appearing briefly at a window) wants that secret. This film opens with a night-time shoot out. The image of a burning horse fleeing is far more disturbing than that of dead men.

The tender heart of Eli is represented by a shawl, a gift he receives on his terms by gently instructing the giver on how to present it. Eli suffers nightmares of severed limbs and the horror of amputation. Eli wants a home and a family, he fantasises about opening a store. Charlie takes this news badly and hits out at Eli.

The modern sounding dialogue prevents us sitting back to expect western tropes and a story of revenge. The Sisters Brothers, a film about the wounded male, belongs to several genres at once: black comedy/drama, the Western, and the redemption tale. Some scenes are brutal. But it doesn’t cheapen itself by joking about brutality. The scenes where Charlie narrates from a diary aren’t needed for the narrative; this element is a small weakness.

On a metaphorical level the chemist Hermann Kermit Warm (UK actor/DJ/music producer Riz Ahmed), with his plans to establish a utopian community in Texas, represents the vulnerability of the intellect and of idealism. Reading the story of the new world into the film, you see the dreams of democracy and equality cherished by so many founders of the USA destroyed by greed.

The Sisters Brothers is a Boys Own Adventure. This is a men’s world of hardness and violence. There are no women in this world, except, fleetingly, mother and ‘whore’.

We learn that Eli is protecting Charlie from himself. The narrative can be read as a morality tale with biblical overtones where a circle is completed at the end. Charlie pays for his greed and crimes. The only real purity is in nature, with animals. The caustic method of extracting gold leaves fish and animals dead; we don’t need to look for a message here.

Without ever being preachy as it’s a funny and accessible film, The Sisters Brothers engages with themes of morality and responsibility, asking who can heal the masculine. Men can fix each other with kindness and by speaking the truth, as we see with the teaming up of John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal sounding English), and Hermann Kermit Warm.

The Sisters Brothers employs a beautiful ending with a long comforting single take around the house, lingering on wallpaper, bedsteads, the kitchen, another bedroom. Eli is in the bath then time dissolves using a technique introduced by Scorsese (notably in the ‘passport’ scene in The Passenger where the Jack Nicholson character is in the first half of a single take and then walks on again in a new time-frame at the end), and we see Eli again in bed.

Although the brothers are cheated of the opportunity to take revenge in the traditional sense, the old guard will die off and new ways are possible. Enjoy this original and bizarrely comical film. With such a compelling cast, you can't go wrong.

Rating: 3 ½ stars ★★★☆

The Sisters Brothers
Based on the book by Patrick Dewitt
Director: Jacques Audiard
Writers: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain and  
Stars: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal

Alliance Française French Film Festival
5 March - 18 April 2019

About the author

Liza Dezfouli reviews film, live performance, books and occasionally music. She blogs about film and other things in a blog called Copy and Cake and writes another, somewhat less-measured blog about feminism and heteronormativity called WhenMrWrongfeelsSoRight. She can occasionally be seen in shows or in short films. For more: