Written and directed by Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone, Dheepan), The Sisters Brothers tells the story of Charlie and Eli Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly), two contract killers in mid-19thCentury America. Here, Charlie and Eli are teamed with detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) to find and kill the humble prospector Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed). However, when a betrayal leads to a change in plans, the brothers set out on a journey into the wild to complete their mission.
Billed as comedy, the film is actually anything but. Though there remains moments of humor and levity, Brothers actually takes itself quite seriously, establishing the harshness of the time. Strong performances by the entire cast ground the film, even giving it a surprising level of poignancy.
Further, The Sisters Brothers subverts the values inherent to the Western genre by holding it up to the ideals of the modern era. Held in constant juxtaposition with one another, Eli and Charlie represent two differing Western worldviews. While Charlie lives a life without rules in a constant quest for power, Eli is discontented with a life of violence. Though Charlie remains entirely focused on the mission, Eli remains torn between who he is and who he wants to be. Fascinated with luxuries like a toothbrush or flushable toilet, Eli yearns for a civilized life.
Eli yearns for home.
Whether it’s how they interact with women, handle disputes or their life goals, Charlie and Eli have conflicting ideas about what it meanst to be successful. In doing so, the film usurps the tradition values of the Western (and stereotypical Western values) of taking power by force. In other words, whereas the Western genre usually focuses their stories on one’s ability to show force in a savage time, Brothersquestions that ideal by offering an alternative to violence.
What’s more, Brothers also demonstrates the power of the Kingdom in the lives of those who get a taste for the best that it has to offer. Despite the fact that he’s being hunted by contract killers, Hermann remains steadfast in his belief that his secret will change the world. However, more than simply emphasizing the financial impact of his discovery, he is most concerned with the positive social impact on the local community. He yearns to make his way to Dallas in order to participate in a mysterious commune that believes in seeking the benefit of everyone who lives there. To Hermann, Dallas remains the ideal goal for humankind as ‘a new kind of society’ and the mere prospect of it has reshaped his entire worldview.
More than this though, Hermann’s belief affects everyone who listens to his story. His pronouncement that there’s a ‘better way’ serves as a calling to those around him. Suddenly, men like Charlie, Eli and Morris are faced with a choice to continue on in the ways of the West or potentially experience something hopeful and new (albeit terrifying). By no means is Hermann a preacher… but his perceived Kingdom is infectious. There is something hopeful about the world he proclaims and it has the potential to change everyone and everything around him.
In the end, Brothers is an entertaining film with ambitious ideas. More than a simple character piece, the film examines the truth behind our culture’s idealization of power over community. Holding up the wild West to modern values, Brothersknows we need our history to speak into our present.
The Sisters Brothers is opens on September 21st, 2018.