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Off The Shelf: The Sisters Brothers (2018)

The Sisters Brothers (2018)

Last week I had an exceptional opportunity to see this film followed by a talk back with Thomas Bidegain (the writer), Jacques Audiard (co-writer and Director), and Jake Gyllenhaal. Not only am I extremely susceptible to being star struck, but I’m also a human being that jumps on hype trains. So it took me some time mulling over this film to figure out exactly where I fall on it without allowing the personal bias of how absolutely awesome that was to seep into this review. It’s something I hope to get used to eventually.

The Sisters Brothers is an exceptionally restrained and reflective western revolving around two brothers and their bounty hunt for a prospector claiming to have a recipe for discovering gold with minimal effort. Eli Sisters (played by John C Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (played by Joaquin Phoenix) assert themselves as a formidable and effective pair. But what’s most surprising is how each man is clearly defined through seemingly basic story beats and actions. Something as simple as the elder brother, Eli, purchasing a toothbrush or treasuring a scarf works wonders in terms of the visual language that defines him as the more sensitive of the pair. Whereas Charlie can often be seen galavanting and drinking demonstrating him as the more volatile, erratic brother. It may not seem “fresh” in terms of stories with polar opposites working together, but The Sisters Brothers finds beautiful chemistry and balance in pushing each brother to a physical and emotional limit at one point or another. It stirs quite a few emotionally powerfully scenes as effortlessly as it does with scenes of genuine hilarity. My highest praise of the film, in fact, is how easily it seems to weave its way through emotional highs and lows, particularly in the second act when the chase is on and the brothers are well established. Audiard as a director masterfully avoids his film falling into one easily defined genre, and instead prefers to show life as authentic as he can reflect it through the camera lens. The performances are expectedly magnificent from these two, with Reilly effectively giving one of his best performances in years. The other core characters of the film, John Morris (played by Gyllenhaal) and Hermann Warm (played by Riz Ahmed), each do well to reveal a more optimistic, contrasting duo do the titular brothers. To say the brothers eventually catch them is perhaps a very, very slight spoiler, but nothing ever happens expectedly in this very grounded western of moral twists and turns. Morris and Warm do not shy away from their educated sensibilities, and often clash philosophically when opposed with the survivalist Sisters, but through it all the four each reflect one another nicely.

The film’s biggest flaw is without a doubt its cumbersome first act. The characters each take time to find their footing, as does the story itself. The plot doesn’t feel like it actually kicks up until the Brothers reach a town called Mayfield. Too much screen time is dedicated to Morris and Warm in the first third in an attempt to establish their characters, but the second act does a much better job of defining them with key moments and scenes that have weight beyond just their simple aspirations. And while my praise is high for the chemistry of the Brothers, that also didn’t quite land until Mayfield, before which they were seemingly just outlaws being outlaws. Occasionally, the film plays almost silently, which is neither praise nor condemnation in my eyes. To some, a quiet, contemplative western may be appealing. To others, that might be a turn off. I only mention it to establish that, while I recommend this movie very highly, I also recognize that it may not be for everyone. If Westerns aren’t your bag because you tend to find them slow paced or too methodical for your liking, this may not be the film to change your mind. However, if you enjoy Westerns, and exceptional performances with deeply internalized characters that reveal themselves gradually, this is a movie to add to your shelf. See it when it comes to a theatre near you.