Saddle up with The Sisters Brothers for a different kind of western

Superb director Jacques Audiard brings together an incredible cast for his character-driven western THE SISTERS BROTHERS.

It’s thanks once again to the BFI. Because a late addition to their programme for last year’s 62nd London Film Festival was the new film from superb director, Jacques Audiard, THE SISTERS BROTHERS which I got to see! And what a brilliantly different kind of western he’s brought us. As it is now finally on U.K. release and even though I’ve posted about its two tremendous trailers, it’s great to now be able to write a short review on why you should go and see this terrific film.

In the last few months, it seems it’s all been about Joaquin Phoenix. Having latterly got to see (and been wowed) by Cannes award-winning performance in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, which lead me to celebrate his magnificent talent in a post, around the same time I also saw him in this as the rangy, unpredictable Charlie Sisters (and once again was wowed). Partnering with the ever-brilliant John C. Reilly as older, more responsible sibling Eli Sisters, they make a truly killer combo. Because THE SISTERS BROTHERS are assassins, riding around Oregon in the 1850s at the behest of their boss The Commodore (a wonderful cameo by the great Rutger Hauer) killing anyone they’re told to.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly and Riz Ahmed in The Sisters Brothers

Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly and Riz Ahmed are the cracking ensemble

Right from the start, in a terrifically filmed shoot-out at night, Audiard dazzles us with a take on the Old West that is both beautiful and unnerving in its cruelty. We might have a wistful memory of what life was like in that time of cowboys but there was also violence in that time and the film doesn’t shrink from showing that. It’s adapted by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain from a novel by Patrick DeWitt. And what DeWitt and the movie explore is a relationship piece between the two main characters set in a western context. The thoughtful Eli and the headstrong Charlie says “we’re good at what we do” and have become somewhat notorious in their exploits. With their contrasting personalities, they reminded me at points of the duality presented by Clint Eastwood’s character Will Munny in his masterful western Unforgiven. Of course, a job from The Commodore proves the catalyst for Eli and Charlie to examine who they are and why they do what they do over the course of the film and the result is riveting to watch.

That job is to track down the charmingly named Hermann Kermit Warm, a chemist and would-be gold prospector played by the fantastic Riz Ahmed. However, one of The Commodore’s scouts, the mannered and mysterious John Morris – another wonderfully nuanced performance from Jake Gyllenhaal – has already found Warm. When Morris then befriends Warm and learns that he has created a formula that will greatly enable the discovery of gold, he starts to question his mission to hold Warm at bay until the Sisters brothers arrive. What happens when they do both surprises and delights, which is exactly the kind of movie I like.

The fact that Audiard has assembled such a dynamic cast is no surprise for fans of the director’s work. Having drawn amazing performances in the past from the likes of Vincent Cassel and Emmanuelle Devos in Read My Lips, Romain Duris in The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts in Rust and Bone and Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup in A Prophet, for his first English-language film (as this is) he’s cast the very best. It’s great to see Gyllenhaal and Ahmed together again on screen after their superbly feisty pairing in Dan Gilroy’s excellent 2014 thriller Nightcrawler. And although Reilly and Phoenix haven’t played opposite each other before, they are wonderful as the squabbling brothers, portraying a real lived-in history and a believable sibling relationship in every one of their scenes.

THE SISTERS BROTHERS is another pitch-perfect, character-driven triumph from Audiard but it’s no less of a success for Reilly, who optioned the rights to DeWitt’s novel way back in 2011 in the hopes of making it into a film and is one of its main producers. In a career of sublime performances that have encompassed everything from the broad comedies where he’s partnered with Will Ferrell to the more dramatic work with Paul Thomas Anderson, this role puts Reilly front and centre as a leading man. And he’s one of the many reasons why this movie is such a distinct pleasure to watch.