“The Sisters Brothers” is a sensitive western about brotherly love that just happens to revolve around stone-cold murderers. It’s a context that requires an original approach to the genre, and that’s exactly what veteran French director Jacques Audiard brings to his first English-language effort. However, in retrospect, Audiard is a natural fit: With movies like “Dheepan” and “A Prophet,” Audiard makes rich character studies about people trying to do the right thing in a world stacked against them, and nothing in American mythology provides a better template for exploring that crisis than the Wild West. However, it’s the stirring chemistry between Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly as committed siblings that transforms these lively, violent circumstances into a sweet and intimate journey designed to catch acolytes of the genre off-guard.
Based on Patrick Dewitt’s 2011 novel, “The Sisters Brothers” unfolds against the backdrop of the Gold Rush, though the historical context is secondary to the narrative it sets in motion. In the first frame, titular Sisters brothers Charlie (Phoenix) and Eli (Reilly) emerge from nighttime shadows to massacre an entire house full of targets. Employed by an enigmatic gangster known as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer, in a fleeting but welcome cameo), the brothers careen across the barren landscape juggling various missions to murder men for reasons irrelevant to their plight. It’s a subversive adventure story about the supposed bad guys, a hit-man comedy by way of Peckinpah, and remarkable for the way it makes the familiar backdrop so appealing from the start.
For the hard-drinking Charlie, this endless killing spree is a justification unto itself; the gentler Eli, however, has started to question the underlying purpose of their missions. Little by little, the focused script (credited to Audiard and Thomas Bidegan) reveals details about this odd pair and the history of their bloody career path; so long as the movie hovers in the center of this dynamic, it remains a fascinating exploration of an unusual family bond.
“The Sisters Brothers” mines so much substance out its central characters that it falters when it cuts away from them. When the brothers are hired to track down a supposed thief named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed, wearing a classy mustache and an inviting grin), the story shifts to his experiences with Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), the bounty hunter who nabs Hermann under the auspices of delivering him to the killers. Sporting a peculiar British accent that makes his lopsided “Okja” character look normal, Gyllenhaal stands out as odd variable in this otherwise credible scenario, though his scenes with Hermann develop their own sense of intrigue. It turns out the alleged criminal actually has a water-based formula with the ability to make gold appear in river beds, and its financial prospects appeal to Morris enough that he decides to become his prisoner’s business partner as they plot to foil the Sisters brothers when they arrive.
But really, this scenario sets in motion more complications for the brothers to escape, as they continue to contend with the broader existential question of what they should do with their time. Enduring harsh conditions on the road between Oregon and California, the Sisters spend much of the movie saving each other from physical harm, whether it’s abrasive spider bites or drunken saloon showdowns, and it’s so endearing to watch them survive each new twist that it renders broader stakes irrelevant. There’s an Altmanesque quality to the way Audiard builds out this world, with the ever-reliable Alexandre Desplat’s jangly score and Benoit Debie’s warm, painterly visuals opening up the brothers’ journeys to the boundless possibilities of the frontier. It almost seems as though they could keep at it forever, but every messy gunfight inches them closer to the possibility that time is running out.
About those gunfights: While Audiard has never made a proper action movie, many of his credits have a brutal, physical intensity, from the grotesque prison showdowns of “A Prophet” to the street brawls of “Rust and Bone” and the Rambo-like militant finale of “Dheepan,” from which Audiard drew on “The Wild Bunch.” To that end, he excels at constructing the most intense sequences of the movie. Filled with jolting sound design and clever misdirection, the shootouts in “The Sisters Brothers” have a sustained potency and remain unpredictable until the very last moments, much like the brothers themselves.
Reilly, who also produced the movie, tends to strike a distinctive tone between goofball and gentleman, a balance that makes his character here so likable from the outset. In a standout moment at a brothel, he attempts to engage in the most kindhearted sexual role-playing in film history, and his bedroom antics are so lovable the prostitute (“Fargo” Season 1 star Allison Tolman) is led to tears; next door, of course, an inebriated Eli’s wrecking havoc on cue. The sad-funny balance of this sequence epitomizes the movie’s endearing tone.
Phoenix, buried behind his usual scrappy beard, peers out at every twist with the same wild eyes that have become his trademark. A sort of companion piece to his emo hitman in Lynn Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here” earlier this year, Phoenix plays Eli as the ultimate foil to his brother’s measured world view: Whereas Charlie constantly worries about his behavior, Eli never hesitates to maintain control of a situation — in a scene that finds the brothers facing down the barrels of a few guns at once, a typically sloshed Eli stares back at their foes and confidently vomits before taking them out.
While not every turn of events remains so involving, the siblings remain a key selling point, as the title of “The Sisters Brothers” provides a template for examining one of its core themes: This most masculine of genres often takes masculinity for granted, but “The Sisters Brothers” doesn’t let its tough guys off the hook. They’re vivid, emotional beings, the products of troubled upbringings who live hand-to-mouth the only way they know how. When they finally come around to confronting a major figure from their past, it arrives as a kind of spiritual awakening, the cinematic equivalent of watching a grown man cry.
“The Sisters Brothers” premiered at the 2018 Venice Film Festival. Annapurna Pictures releases it theatrically on September 21.