The Sisters Brothers (2018)

Directed by Jacques Audiard

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Starting with a cold massacre, The Sisters Brothers builds to an unexpectedly tender finale.  It’s a western that feels subversive if only because it becomes less violent over time, following its sibling assassin duo as they leave the game behind and look for other ways to survive.

That’s not their goal at the start of the film, and the more reckless of the two, Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) resists the transformation, but is nevertheless where they end up, at least following a failed detour into gold mining.

The brothers are Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie.  Eli is the more mild-mannered one and because Charlie is played by Phoenix, you can probably assume he’s the wild card of the two.  As the film becomes more of a character study, probing the two brothers and what makes them tick, Eli will explain to another character how they became hired guns.

When you kill a man, he says, you bring upon you the wrath of god, to paraphrase.  Suddenly the man’s son, father, brothers, etc. will come after you, and each subsequent murder, even in self-defense, only brings more people after you.  It seems that when the movie starts they are deep into this web, with no discernible way out.

Their goal within the film is to find and kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a prospector and chemist who claims to have a formula that will help him quickly find the gold beneath their feet.  Because their last assignment got a little messy, they’ve been ordered by the Commodore, their boss, to use a ‘lead man,’ John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal).

The first half of the film splits the story in two, following Morris and Warm as they meet, then have their true intentions unveiled on one side and the Sisters brothers on the other.  Reuniting from Nightcrawler (2014), Ahmed and Gyllenhaal have a good deal of chemistry here, and they carry the film while the scenes between Eli and Charlie suffer with forced exposition.

It’s actually an interesting case study in some ways.  In writing a story, it might just be easier or more interesting to start with two characters meeting each other for the first time.  That way there’s more ground to cover than if you start with two characters who are supposed to have an entire history together.  In The Sisters Brothers the scenes between Eli and Charlie are much more effective later in the story, but when we’re meant to just ride around with them on horseback and listen to them talk about themselves and their history, it’s all just so unmotivated.  In contrast the scenes between Morris and Warm feel urgent and revealing.

When Warm learns of Morris’ true intentions, he holds him at gunpoint, but soon the tables turn and Morris handcuffs him and holds him as prisoner.  Warm will try desperately to convince him to let him go, fearing the imminent torture and murder at the hands of the brothers.  Appealing to Morris’ humanity, he is successful in this attempt, and they run off together to start their own mining business.

The brothers go after them, or continue after them, but soon they too are convinced to change their ways.  Soon we get the cheeriest sequence of the entire film, with the four of them working the land together in a beautiful riverbed and just becoming friends.  It’s remarkably sweet.

And then everything goes wrong, almost just because it has to.  Whether it’s a cosmic force, greed or otherwise, these characters seem to pay for sins accumulated earlier in their lives or maybe even in past lives.  It’s devastating mostly because of the swiftness with which it arrives, not at the hands of an antagonist with a gun (they are all disposed of rather quickly) but because of something else entirely.

So the takeaways from this film, it offers the same general, visceral excitement promised by other westerns, but it emphasizes the efforts made by its characters to break free of the things that trap them.  These may be bounties, contracts or just the ill will sent their way by those they’ve wronged.  In some cases it’s the angst of things they’ve brought upon themselves, guilt in other words.

Some of these characters can’t escape, but others do.  In that story it seems there’s something said about the death of the western as well.  Other westerns have tackled this idea too, whether it’s Unforgiven showing the life of an aged cowboy, or Once Upon a Time in the West detailing the increasingly modern world from an infrastructure standpoint.  Here it’s just about the mindset of violence and its perpetrators.

If you combine those three movies, I suppose you leave the old west behind.  It’s cowboys too old to bother with the the violence that plagues the world of these movies, an increasingly interconnected landscape in which it’s harder to kill in a vacuum and get away with it, and then finally the will to commit such violence at all.  The Sisters brothers are the most violent, capable, cold assassins in this entire movie, and if they can decide to leave it all behind and live a more pure life, then others probably can too.

Up Next: They Live (1988), Halloween (1978), The Conjuring (2013)

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