The Western genre has seen its heyday come and go. We have had fleeting instances of that old frontier spirit come along as the years have rolled by, in many different forms – from Clint Eastwood's last hurrah in Unforgiven to the animated escapades of Gore Verbinski's Rango, to the mind-numbing spectacle of the Magnificent Seven remake – but now, they have become the proverbial lone gunslinger, seldom seen, roaming from screen to screen and never staying long. This adaptation of Patrick DeWitt's 2011 novel, however, seems set to stoke those frontier flames once more.
For Jacques Audiard's English directorial debut, The Sisters Brothers sparkles. Joaquin Phoenix and John C Reilly, legendary presences, are the eponymous outlaws – Charlie and Eli Sister, hired hands and contract killers for a man referred to only as the Commandant, played by a seldom-seen yet darkly imposing Rutger Hauer. After an immediately captivating and thunderous opening scene that serves to exemplify how the brothers operate in their line of work, they are soon contracted to hunt down and kill a man named Herman Warm (Ahmed), a man who has stolen directly from the Commandant. In this, they cross paths with Morris (Gyllenhaal), a verbose, soft-spoken man also on Warm's trail, and from there tension swells and unlikely events become all the more possible as those involved in the pursuit of Herman realise that they've gotten much more than they've bargained for.
From there, Sisters Brothers becomes less a black comedy – it suffers from having the overwhelming majority of its humorous moments featured in trailers, with their impact diminished somewhat as a result – and more a tried and true adventure narrative underpinned by scintillating character interactions. The story may be plain, but the performances elevate the narrative to another level. The core quartet of Reilly, Phoenix, Ahmed and Gyllenhaal all scintillate in this, bringing their experience to the fore. Beyond its plain yet serviceable plot, the film almost serves as a character study, and one recalls 2018's Ballad of Buster Scruggs, similarly, and how through jet-black humour and keenly-honed character moments it painted a picture of life in the West at its grimmest. The feature goes down a similar path – the two brothers, Charlie and Eli, wholly willing to define their life by acts of violence and a comparatively more restrained moral compass respectively, are brought to vivid life by Phoenix and Reilly as they bicker about the merits and drawbacks of their work, the tasks they find themselves performing, and the bloody nature of their business. It is a marvelous breath of fresh air for Reilly in particular, having so often been cast in forgettable features and two-bit comedies as of late, and to see him try to anchor himself as the voice of reason while the brothers' mission grows ever more complicated, Charlie's temperament gets ever more fiery and the tone of the film becomes all the more nihilistic and bleak is a testament to his skill.
Both Ahmed and Gyllenhall do not allow themselves to be outdone. The optimistic and insightful nature of Herman Warm and Morris' growing compassion towards and understanding of his mark make for arresting viewing in their own right, and solid counterpoints to the violent aspects of the world that the titular siblings embody. Gyllenhaal's character is not a particular standout in terms of action, but his chemistry with Ahmed is instantly captivating and both of their performances are earnest in their emotionality. Embodiments of hope in a desperate and often lawless time, they are a delight every time they grace the screen, and the ease with which their conversations flow greatly help the film's leaning on the slow burn.
Visually, too, the film is an undeniable treat, with multiple instances of striking cinematography that will be seared into your retinas – in a pleasant and most certainly wholesome way. Sweeping scenes of vistas that look as though they've leapt straight out of the old West, comparable to the scenic beauty of Leone's ouvre and Scruggs' 'All Gold Canyon', serve as the bedrock for moments both loud and quiet as the film indulges in the moment, replete with bountiful amounts of dialogue and character building that are facilitated by this stylistic choice. While the film also goes to great lengths to capitalise on the particulars of its setting in other ways – it is the first feature in a long time to treat toothbrushes as an exotic novelty – it is undeniably capped off by the unrivalled majesty of the spectacles that it has to offer and the meticulous care with which. This is further enhanced by a minimalistic and powerfully effective score courtesy of Alexander Desplat, accentuating moments of stillness with a creeping unease and allowing heavy-hitting developments to truly knock you off your feet.
A humdrum core storyline mars the film somewhat, however – while it is certainly narrative-driven, if you aim to see this because you happen to be interested in what kind of story the film can offer you, you may emerge from the theatre somewhat disappointed. It's serviceable, but as a story it is far from the likes of Tombstone, Lonesome Dove or Dances With Wolves – but with such gripping performances from its cast, such passion put into the craft and such authentic representation of the period, it is easily forgiven. As a faithful adaptation of a solid work of literature and a stellar Western in its own right, Sisters Brothers is well worth the price of admission that will doubtlessly leave that Western spirit burning within you once again – and craving for more.