THE SISTERS BROTHERS Review: The Path Forward from Violence
Even before the Western genre died off in the ‘70s, filmmakers were already beginning to reckon with the violence of America’s past. Nowadays, in the rare instance that a modern Western actually makes it to theater screens, they’re practically required to address that violence in grim and unflinching terms. Think Unforgiven, with its failed redemption of sadistic would-be hero. The saying goes that to understand the present, you must look to the past. In reexamining the American West, few films try to imagine a way forward and beyond past sins.
The Sisters Brothers are certainly trying. Or at least one of them is. Charlie and Eli Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly, respectively) are assassins by trade, eking out a violent existence in 1850s Oregon. The pair work primarily for a businessman known only as the Commodore, tasked with hunting down and killing the men who’ve crossed him in whatever way he claims. Their most recent assignment is Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a gold prospector who is said to have stolen something of value from the Commodore. But what Warm has could be the way out Eli is looking for.
Wherever the brothers go, their reputation for brutality precedes them. The film’s opening sequence shows the pair in action, as Charlie and Eli shoot up a house full of men. Their violence is indiscriminate and efficient, putting bullets in heads without hesitation or question. They are a well-oiled machine whose function is murder. Once they notice the burning barn, however, the sequence demonstrates the brothers’ differences. Eli tries to run in to save the horses trapped inside. One escapes, flame licking from its hide. Charlie stops him, letting the barn burn. Eli tries to frame his desire to save them economically - they were promised new horses for this job - but we know where his heart is as soon as he sees that first horse running for its life as its flesh burns.
Charlie loves his work. He relishes altercation like a dog chomping after a steak. A psychopathic grin creeps across his face when a potential victim refuses to cooperate, because now he gets to do what he’s good at. Visits to town guarantee a drunken brawl as he antagonizes the other patrons at the saloon. Violence and sadism is his native tongue. Phoenix is no stranger to scumbag roles such as this, but he hides something under the gleeful nihilism of the character that draws the audience in as it reveals itself.
John C. Reilly
Jacques Audiard and
For as good as Phoenix is, it’s Reilly who runs away with the film, functioning as its conflicted, beating heart. Reilly’s natural goofy boyishness plays well against Phoenix’s sarcastic belligerence, resulting in a number of dark laughs. Those qualities also operate perfectly in belying Eli’s own capacity for savagery. He may in fact be even more lethal than his brother. But it becomes increasingly clear that he does not enjoy their work like Charlie does. He has too much compassion, and the weight of his and Charlie’s sins registers on his face and in his body language at every step of the narrative.
While peppered with shockingly bloody and textured carnage - gunshots have rarely felt as forceful, full of sparks and smoke - the film is constantly working its way towards the path of redemption and compassion. As a colleague assisting the brothers gets closer to Hermann, whom Riz Ahmed gives an enigmatic sophistication and warmth, he begins to see the peaceful life that they could have. Hermann has developed a chemical alternative for extracting gold, which could replace more standard, destructive means of prospecting. The device sets up the dichotomy with which the film constantly works - choosing peace over conflict, modernity over savagery.
Charlie and Eli exist on opposite sides of that debate. Eli is the kind of guy fascinated with the new invention of a toothbrush, and who screams with joy over internal plumbing. Charlie, meanwhile, scoffs at vocabulary more advanced than three syllables as pretentious. Director and writer Jacques Audiard sees through his posturing to expose the inferiority complex underneath, but he does not judge him for it. Audiard continually finds compassion and empathy for the characters, exploring the why of who they are while nudging them towards the right path. Charlie says he likes his life as it is, but his problem may simply be that he lacks the imagination to create a better one, or perhaps believes he isn’t deserving. The Sisters Brothers arrives at the conclusion that, even for these men, redemption and forgiveness is attainable. All it takes is being able to envision that world, and the ability to see yourself in it.
The Sisters Brothers is currently playing in theaters everywhere.