BFI London Film Festival: The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers
The Sisters Brothers
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed
Screening at LFF October 19th, 20th and 21st 2018

by Joanna Orland

With ‘The Western’ being an enduring staple of cinema, you’d think it’d be hard to do a refreshing take on the genre. But The Sisters Brothers goes against all convention, using the Western landscape and lawless brutality as a backdrop to a very human and modern story.

Charlie (Phoenix) and Eli (Reilly) are the Sisters brothers; hired guns sent by the powerful Commodore (Rutger Hauer) to kill prospector Hermann Kermit Warm (Ahmed). Setting out ahead of the brothers to locate Warm is tracker John Morris (Gyllenhaal), who spends his time writing in his journal, pondering the state of society and its pace of change. The story follows the relationship between Charlie and Eli, as well as the one between John and Hermann, as each set of men journeys across the west.

As well as their literal journey, each man is also on a soul-searching, figurative one. Charlie doesn’t see a life beyond his drunken violent past, inherited to him by his father. Eli longs to settle down with a woman he loves, moving on from the life of crime he shares with his brother. John and Hermann both long for a different society, free of the greed and brutality that infiltrate their everyday lives. The nature of brotherhood and male friendship is poignantly explored, as the irony in the name the ‘Sisters’ brothers becomes more apparent as the film goes on.

Technically, the film is immaculately made; featuring beautiful and vast landscapes and a wonderful musical score by Alexandre Desplat. Tonally, the film manages to avoid the feel of what’s expected of a Western, trading in dark and gritty for light and airy; all the while managing emotions across the spectrum from genuinely hilarious to profoundly sad. Director Jacques Audiard has done a masterful job in shaping this film, the highlight being the star-studded cast and their career-best performances.

Never before have I truly enjoyed a Joaquin Phoenix performance. However, his usual mumbling drawl works to great effect in The Sisters Brothers, as it perfectly suits a drunken and troubled Charlie Sisters. John C. Reilly is the heart of the film; while it’s expected that he would be the bumbling sidekick to Charlie, he’s really the smarter and more sensible of the two, devoting his life to watching over and protecting his brother. Jake Gyllenhaal as John Morris revels in his character, while also managing quite a measured performance. Riz Ahmed in the role of Hermann is so amiable in his idealism, he almost brings a tear to the eye.

Delightfully humourous, profoundly sad; The Sisters Brothers defies the Western genre to tell a soulful story about fraternal relationships and male ambitions. A timeless tragicomedy, The Sisters Brothers will surprise you with its own ambition and heart-rending sentimentality.


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