Jacques Audiard's "The Sisters Brothers" Makes Solid Use of Spectacular Cast

French director Jacques Audiard (“Rust And Bone”) makes his English language debut with “The Sisters Brothers,” a western adapted from Patrick deWitt’s 2011 novel. It all goes down in a lightly fictionalized 1851 where distance is measured in days, toothbrushes come with instruction manuals, and harum-scarum assassins Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli (John C. Reilly) Sisters roam the Pacific Northwest, leaving a crimson trail in their wake.

Yet, for all their bloodletting, the Sisters brothers are rather agreeable fellows, continuing their service under a ruthless boss they refer to as the Commodore (Rutger Hauer) out of both duty and dread. The brothers fancy their reputation as outsized; in reality it’s cold comfort to two career criminals bought and paid for by one far more powerful and savage. Still, Eli dreams of retirement, with Reilly lending his trademark sweetness to a character that’s increasingly of two minds on his macabre profession.

Phoenix’s Charlie is the wilder Sisters brother, frequently drunk, largely accepting of his station as an American outlaw. He romanticizes the job in a way heels are supposed to – a debauched rock star before debauched rock stars – but a scoundrel is no match for the siren call of gold. When the brothers find themselves on the trail of prospector and chemist Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), the chance at a different kind of life begins to shimmer in the distance.

Scouting Warm on behalf of the brothers is a man named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal, enjoying a “Nightcrawler” reunion with Ahmed). Although his intent is to question and then detain Warm, Morris is the first to become flummoxed by his target’s poise and sincerity, a far cry from the mad scientist he’d imagined. Gyllenhaal and Ahmed’s portion of the movie is even more intriguing than the incidental, understated hijinks of Phoenix and Reilly’s (although a select few will get an incomparable kick out of seeing the stars of “Walk The Line” and “Walk Hard” team up).

All the while, unpredictability reigns; all we know is that both storylines will eventually intersect.

Although the pic’s handsome visuals peak early in a beautifully photographed nocturnal shootout, Audiard’s eye proves vital in managing the themes and tones in his script (co-written with regular collaborator Thomas Bidegain). By the time the Sisters catch up with Harris and Warm – now in cahoots – the smoky saloons and open spaces have successfully established time and place, giving the filmmaker room to navigate between Charlie Sisters’ antics and the harsh realities of life in 1851.

The sum of “The Sisters Brothers” is admittedly low-impact, its narrative ebbs and flows unsuited to general audiences. But moviegoers willing to saddle up will be compensated with the company of one of the year’s finest casts – and a genuinely surprising third act that neatly mimics a plunge into a natural water body. Cold and warm spots, refreshing to the touch.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: September 21, 2018 (Limited)
Studio: Annapurna Pictures
Director: Jacques Audiard
Screenwriters: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Carol Kane, Rebecca Root, Allison Tolman, Rutger Hauer
MPAA Rating: R (for violence including disturbing images, language, and some sexual content)