Cast: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed
Director: Jacques Audiard
Running time: 2 hours
by Jericho Cerrona
The longing for sensitivity inside the soul of lawless men has been at the center of writer/director Jacques Audiard’s filmography for years. Just look at the piano-playing delinquent in The Beat My Heart Skipped, the hardened prisoner looking for spiritual awakening in A Prophet, or even the soft-spoken Sri Lankan refugee turned badass in Dheepan. These are all men hiding in the shadows who still desire something close to happiness.
Audiard’s latest film, The Sister’s Brothers, is an odd one. A darkly comic western following the journey of titular brothers Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) as they track down a man responsible for creating a formula for easily detecting gold, the film nonetheless fits squarely into Audiard’s fascination with lonely men looking for a way to escape their loneliness. It also should be noted that Reilly bought the rights to the 2011 Patrick deWitt novel upon which the film is based, and is credited as executive producer. This means there’s a level to which his talents as a character actor— that mix of social awkwardness and sadness—is perfectly suited to the role of Eli; a man who simply wants to finish one last job and be done with the business of killing altogether. On the other hand, his brother Charlie relishes the opportunity to kill insofar as it offers him a big pay day and plenty of booze, which likewise fits Phoenix’s brand of loose-cannon acting.
The Sisters Brothers follows a parallel narrative track, switching between Eli and Charlie’s exploits with that of the mark they are following, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). Once Warm teams up with John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man originally sent to capture him, the film moves into more introspective territory. As played by Ahmed with a soft gaze and sober intellect, there’s a homoerotic subtext to Warm and Morris’s relationship which also reads as a larger allegorical statement on the possibilities of an undiscovered country. Though there are violent interludes, shoot outs, and drunken shouting matches, The Sisters Brothers is an uncommonly cool-headed film. One might even call it gentle.
Still, this being an Audiard joint, there’s no shortage of nihilistic consequences for the actions of selfish men. In the film’s third act, things take a tragic turn as the two narrative tracks converge. Warm’s utopian idea of a society presaging socialism is a melancholic take on the eventual collapse of democracy, with the greed for gold ultimately trumping everything. All the while, Reilly and Phoenix play off each other wonderfully as polar opposites trapped in a geographical space which makes sensible life all but nonexistent. When a character asks Eli why he continues to put up with Charlie’s dim-witted recklessness, he simply stares off and mutters, “He’s my brother.” It’s a simple yet powerful sentiment which informs the film’s unexpectedly tender ending, which may be the most lyrical filmmaking of Audiard’s career. However, even this climax is tinged with despair because we know that for the Sisters brothers, it’s a feeling that ultimately won’t last.