To play any brother, by blood or not, of John C. Reilly is an in­tim­i­dat­ing prospect given just how firmly en­trenched Will Fer­rell is as Reilly’s on-screen sib­ling. “Step Brothers,” their 2008 com­edy clas­sic that took the ado­les­cent adult to ab­sur­dist ex­tremes, looms large. It did even for Joaquin Phoenix in de­cid­ing to play Reilly’s brother in “The Sis­ters Brothers,” Jac­ques Au­di­ard’s Western. Phoenix con­sid­ers “Step Brothers” one of his all-time favourites.

“I knew from that movie. It’s kind of un­be­liev­able how bril­liant he is in it,” Phoenix says of Reilly. “I know peo­ple think of it as a broad com­edy, but there’s a lot of thought that went into that char­ac­ter.”

The two films, “The Sis­ters Brothers” and “Step Brothers,” are worlds apart. But they are both cen­tered on the sub­tle and com­bustible chem­istry of brothers. And for Reilly, both Fer­rell and Phoenix are two of the fun­ni­est peo­ple he’s ever met. “Both,” he says, “have made me pee my pants and fall down laugh­ing.”

“The Sis­ters Brothers,” the first English-lan­guage film for the French film maker Au­di­ard (“AProphet,” ‘’De­heepan”), is based on Pa­trick deWitt’s novel of the same name. Phoenix plays the hot­headed and hard-drink­ing Char­lie Sis­ters, younger brother to the more level-headed and un­cer­tain Eli (Reilly). But they are both feared hired guns, who are dis­patched by their boss, the Com­modore, to track down a chemist (Riz Ahmed) with a rad­i­cal idea for gold de­tec­tion.

The movie is largely a pair of two-han­ders - one be­tween Phoenix and Reilly (to­gether for the first time), the other be­tween Ahmed and Jake Gyl­len­haal (a re­union from “Nightcrawler”), who plays an­other pur­suer who first lo­cates the sought-af­ter chemist. Both re­la­tion­ships throb with ex­is­ten­tial quandary and more im­me­di­ate con­fronta­tions with change. Reilly’s Eli, for ex­am­ple, en­coun­ters a tooth brush for the first time.

And much of the de­light in “The Sis­ters Brothers” is see­ing two very different per­form­ers like Reilly and Phoenix in­ter­act and re­spond to each other. Phoenix, ruth­lessly self-dep­re­cat­ing, is a pow­er­fully in­stinc­tual ac­tor who ab­hors noth­ing as much as over-anal­y­sis. The vol­u­ble, ex­act­ing Reilly is more prone to self-doubt and com­mu­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“It quickly be­came ap­par­ent to me when we started: I don’t know this guy at all,” Reilly said in an in­ter­view at the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Festival. “In fact, it’s so in­tense to be around him, I don’t know if I can even han­dle it. We couldn’t even make eye con­tact at first.”

The pro­ject is a long-run­ning one for Reilly, who ac­quired deWitt’s manuscript and pro­duced the film. He con­sid­ers the six or seven years it took to make and re­lease eas­ily his long­est job ever. He and Phoenix first met through their mu­tual friend and direc­tor Paul Thomas An­der­son but got to know each other mak­ing “The Sis­ters Brothers.”

“He came over to my place,” says Phoenix. “Some­times you just feel some­thing about some­body. I re­mem­ber when he left, I was talk­ing to my girl­friend (Rooney Mara) and I was like: ‘He’s about to do some amaz­ing work.’ Just the way he talked about it.”

The pro­duc­tion was orig­i­nally planned for Ore­gon but shifted to ru­ral Spain. Among the in­ter­na­tional crew, Reilly and Phoenix were es­sen­tially the only Amer­i­cans around. Since talk­ing through the roles or re­hears­ing was out, they got ac­cus­tomed to just be­ing around each other - liv­ing to­gether at times, cook­ing meals.

“That’s how we found our way into each other. We’d just walk in Spain for hours and hours with­out talk­ing,” says Reilly. “It sounds re­ally weird.”

“He’s im­pos­si­ble not to adore and I did my best to make him dis­like me,” Phoenix says. “He was so com­mit­ted and hard-work­ing and de­tail-ori­ented, there was never a mo­ment where he just showed up. Be­cause there is al­ways, no mat­ter what you’re do­ing, a cou­ple days where you’re like: ‘(For­get) this, when is lunch?’ And he never did that.”

For Reilly, “The Sis­ters Brothers” is ul­ti­mately about trans­for­ma­tion through hu­man con­nec­tion. He views it as an “un­var­nished, un-mythol­o­gised” look at a West that was more di­verse than has of­ten been cap­tured in films. The ap­peal for Phoenix was - sim­i­lar to his crime thriller ear­lier this year with Lynne Ram­say, “You Were Never Re­ally Here” - in de­con­struct­ing the genre.

“Hon­estly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a good Western. I wouldn’t even know what ... it was,” Phoenix says. “But I didn’t think about this as a Western and I told Jac­ques I didn’t like West­erns. He and we were try­ing to find things that defy the ex­pec­ta­tions of what the genre is.”

But re­main­ing, to a cer­tain de­gree, un­con­scious about the larger themes is an es­sen­tial part of Phoenix’s ap­proach to act­ing.

“It’s fun to think about,” he says of the mean­ings be­hind “The Sis­ters Brothers.” ‘’But half the time you think you come up with an an­swer or a rea­son why some­one be­haves the way they do, it’s just not real. It’s fun and you think you’re be­ing (ex­ple­tive) clever. But the truth is the best (ex­ple­tive) is when you’re like: I don’t re­ally know why this is hap­pen­ing. If you think about this too much or talk this way when you’re work­ing, you start sell­ing it.”

That Phoenix is able to main­tain such a vis­ceral, volatile pres­ence on set as­tounded Reilly.

“It’s like magic. It’s re­ally hard to be that un­pre­dictable on cam­era, I can tell you from a life of per­for­mance,” says Reilly. “The amount of thought and plan­ning and re­hears­ing and set­ting things up, and then to be un­pre­dictable af­ter all of that? It’s re­ally, re­ally hard.”

In Toronto, Phoenix ap­peared no­tice­ably gaunt, his face sunken in, part of his prepa­ra­tion for the soon-to-be­gin-shoot­ing Joker stand-alone film. (“Not go­ing to talk about it,” he said with a smile.)

Reilly, though, has a se­ries of films com­ing up that, like “The Sis­ters Brothers,” are built around duos. In “Stan and Ol­lie,” he and Steve Coogan play the iconic com­edy team. In “Holmes and Wat­son” he reteams with Fer­rell.

“Even I who likes to think that I have a lot of va­ri­ety in my ca­reer - and I do - you’ve got to look at this duo thing,” says Reilly. “I thrive in those sit­u­a­tions. I just never saw my­self as the sole star of any­thing. I can do great things if I would in col­lab­o­ra­tion with peo­ple. I think even to be a good lis­tener re­quires me to sus­pend my own ego and re­ally stop think­ing about what I’m go­ing to say next and plug into you. Then a con­ver­sa­tion hap­pens. Then there’s some­thing’s alive.”

“What can I say?” he adds. “I pick my part­ners well.”

Jake Gyl­len­haal Riz Ahmed

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