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How the West Was Worn: The Sisters Brothers is a Well-Worn, Albeit, Blood- and Alcohol-Stained Suit of Clothes

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I must admit, I let out a wicked snicker when I overheard would-be audience members waiting in line to see the soon-to-premiere The Sisters Brothers at September’s Toronto International Film Festival, speculating about the film. Some had guessed that they were about to see a frat-boy comedy.

“I mean, really. Just look at the title: The Sisters Brothers. This has to be a comedy,” said one.

“And It’s got John C. Reilly in it. It has to be hilarious. You know, like that Step Brothers movie he did with Will Ferrell,” guessed another attendee.

Boy, were they in for a shock to the system. Minutes after the lights went down and The Sisters Brothers’ body count began to pile up, those same unsuspecting audience members were immersed in an adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s harsh novel of the same name. Set in Oregon circa 1851 and directed by Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone), The Sisters Brothers is a revisionist, often-coarse but always-terrific western. For sure, there are moments that crackle, but for the most part, the film is a slow burn, not unlike a pot of coffee left on the campfire a bit too long. It harkens to one of legendary director Robert Altman’s best movies, 1971’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, another slow-burner which redefined the genre.

Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) and his brother Eli (John C. Reilly) are hired guns sent on a fool’s errand by a mysterious boss known only as the Commodore (a rare appearance from Rutger Hauer) to track not a ruthless mastermind, but an odd, law-abiding chemist (Riz Ahmed). It turns out that the chemist has invented some kind of magical elixir able to yield more treasure out of gold-bearing rivers and streams. In the old west, gold meant wealth, wealth meant power and power usually meant somebody had to die. To that end, the Commodore orders the Sisters Brothers to find the chemist, torture him, steal his elixir and leave him for dead. And to ensure that the brothers follow through on that bloody bit of business, the Commodore also sends along an “advance” man (Jake Gyllenhaal) to help seal the deal.

To director Audiard’s credit, The Sisters Brothers always feels authentic, like a well-worn, albeit blood- and alcohol-stained suit of clothes. And like any good horse opera, the journey is as paramount as the destination. Saddle up for this one.

Related Film

The Sisters Brothers

Director: Jacques Audiard

Producer: Pascal Caucheteux, Grégoire Sorlat, Michel Merkt, Michael De Luca, Alison Dickey, John Reilly, Megan Ellison, Chelsea Barnard, Sammy Scher, Fernando Victoria de Lecea, Tudor Reu and Delphine Tomson

Cast: John Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rebecca Root, Allison Tolman, Rutger Hauer, Carol Kane and Patrice Cossonneau