Movies Reilly steps it up for
LUMBERING GUNSLINGER Eli Sisters is a sort of anti-clint cowboy— sensitive, awkward, and refreshingly devoid of enigma. And he’s one of the big reasons French director Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers feels like such a new spin on old westerns: it’s a character study—not something you usually associate with a shoot-’em-up, especially one as blood-soaked as this.
Audiard paints Eli (played epically by John C. Reilly) and the rest of his characters so thoroughly here that you’ll swear you can smell them. The action centres around the relationship that Reilly’s likable oaf has with his brother Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), who’s hard-drinking and volatile, and has an itchy trigger finger. They argue, fight, and tease each other—watch the fireside trick where Charlie pretends to whimper in his sleep, then relentlessly mocks Eli for coming to comfort him. The brothers are childish and petty, but you’ll be surprised to find yourself gradually caring for both of them, and understanding why they are the way they are.
The two rough-and-tumble assassins are sent by their sinister boss to chase down a gold-rush prospector who holds a valuable secret. But in this wild western, based on the novel by Canadian writer Patrick dewitt, the plan starts to go wrong from “Giddy-up!”
When they meet up with the prospector, Audiard has a fun time contrasting the brutish Sisters brothers with the refined, idealistic Hermann (gently and empathetically played by Riz Ahmed)—not to mention Jake Gyllenhaal as John Morris, a man whose impeccable enunciation and love of writing may disguise a more tawdry role in all this.
Along the way, Audiard (who directed Rust and Bone) takes us into the boarding houses, field canteens, small-town bordellos, and wilderness supply shops that have sprouted up along the gold-rush route. He gives everything a surreal flourish, from a scene of flaming horses rampaging out of a burning barn to a pile of fine furniture washed up on a seashore. And he drives everything with a pulsing, jazzy score.
Audiard’s emphasis on character doesn’t mean this western doesn’t have gruesome violence. Bullets and blood fly. But here’s betting the moments you remember the most are the quieter ones, like Eli trying his first toothbrush or seeing his first indoor toilet. The Sisters Brothers is at its best when it’s playing with the contrasts of two dirt-covered Wild West men navigating an ever-civilizing world—one where bullets and brute force don’t necessarily get things done anymore.
It’s a winding but awesomely entertaining ride, even for western fans who’ve ridden them thar hills many times before.