DVD Review: The Sisters Brothers

the sisters brothers index

A film based on Patrick deWitt’s novel of the same name, the book is one of my favourite of the last ten years, and as mentioned in the Lemonade Joe review I’m not a fan of Westerns in general. But deWitt told a captivating tale of two brothers who had a unique bond and a pretty amusing one at that, as they went around tracking down wanted men and brutally murdering them. To be honest while reading it I didn’t picture either John C. Reilly or Joaquin Phoenix as the two leads but both are accomplished actors so I was hoping they’d pull it off.

The story sees Charlie Sisters (Phoenix) and Eli Sisters (Reilly) bicker as they ride across the wild west on a mission from the Commodore (Rutger Hauer, seen but not heard) to track down John Morris (Riz Ahmed), a prospector who’s stolen from him. Helping out is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Hermann Kermit Warm, a man who’s great at tracking criminals but inept at killing them. Yet Hermann and Morris soon bond as Hermann becomes convinced that Morris’s scheme to use a special formula to find gold in a river will revolutionise the world, and at the same time Eli is tiring of their life on the road, of the constant killing, but Charlie doesn’t feel the same way

There’s some amusing moments like the Sisters Brother’s excitement at witnessing a toilet that flushes, and discovering that toothbrushes exist, but the bickering is often annoying instead of charming. There’s a lot of dry humour in the novel but it’s mostly missing here, and this is a grimmer, darker take on the tale. It’s not necessarily a bad thing and those who haven’t read the book might not have an issue with it, but I found it a shame that there was a bleaker edge and that the laughs are few and far between.

Reilly is great as Eli, bringing a much needed humanity and warmth to the film, but Phoenix is only fine. I’m not sure he’s particularly suited to comedy and often comes across as cold and mean, which is part of his character in the novel, but only part. Disappointingly women have little to do here, they’re either whores, store assistants or mothers, and while this is the fault of the source text it’s a shame that this wasn’t developed a little further, Rebecca Root gets the strongest role as the matriarch of a town but her grim demise is fairly upsetting. In certain reviews a scene between Reilly and a prostitute (Fargo’s Allison Tolman) has been praised as being hilariously funny, yet oddly I only found it to be quite unsettling and disturbing, though I guess that suggests you may well find the film more amusing than I did.

By the end the Brother’s finally track down Morris and Hermann and after a shoot out with another group they bond and are also seduced by Morris’s plan, especially when it works well. Unfortunately for them Hermann’s formula is poisonous and after Charlie screws up and pours too much in to the water deaths take place, and an arm has to be sawn off. Once again it’s all rather bleak, but despite how everything is looking the boys might just survive. Possibly.

It’s been described as a comedy in the PR blurb but I feel this is misrepresenting the film and at best it’s a dramedy. It could have been funnier if the bond between the two brothers had been more affecting, and if more of the humour from the book had been included, but as director Jacques Audiard has chosen to make a more serious film it doesn’t capture it’s spirit, and for me is a lesser work because of this.

Alex Finch.

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