Film review: The Sisters Brothers a darkly comic take on the western tradition

John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix deliver strong performances in The Sisters Brothers, a dark comedy western that benefits from the snappy dialogue and outsider's perspective of French film-maker Jacques Audiard, writes Damon Smith

Joaquin Phoenix and John C Reilly in The Sisters Brothers
Damon Smith

THE west was won with marksmanship, braggadocio and bold scientific endeavour in French writer-director Jacques Audiard's dark comedy.

Adapted from Patrick DeWitt's novel by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, The Sisters Brothers is an offbeat caper set against the backdrop of the California Gold Rush.

John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix deliver compelling performances as the eponymous siblings, who have grown weary of life on horseback and hunger for a return to home comforts.

The actors catalyse a convincing, fractious screen chemistry as their flawed gunslingers unholster vulnerability and black humour on a haphazard quest for redemption.

En route, there is a superfluous, skin-crawling interlude with a spider in search of a nest for the night (accomplished using slick digital effects) and a touching tete-a-tete with a saloon prostitute (Allison Tolman), who is moved to tears by unexpected tenderness.

"You're very kind and gentle, and I'm not used to it," she confides.

Audiard complements snappy verbal exchanges with moments of directorial brio, including a night-time gunfight which opens the picture, lit by the flashes from duelling revolvers.

An unexpectedly touching plot meanders in the hoof prints of the central duo, punctuated by scenes of graphic violence including an amputation and a runaway horse set on fire by the flaming timbers of a barn.

Eli Sisters (Reilly) and his scrawny younger brother Charlie (Phoenix) are assassins for hire in 1851 Oregon. They agree to complete one final job for their powerful employer, The Commodore (Rutger Hauer), presuming that Eli can keep his hot-headed sibling out of trouble.

"Our father was stark raving mad and we got his foul blood in our veins," snarls Charlie by way of an explanation for his self-destructive behaviour.

The Commodore entreats the Sisters to kill gold prospector Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has invented a volatile chemical compound that reveals priceless nuggets of metal concealed in river beds.

A private detective named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) is already on Warm's trail and will lead the unsuspecting target into the brothers' clutches.

Charlie relays The Commodore's orders to apprehend Warm and "extract from him, by whatever violent means necessary, his formula".

"You mean torture him," summarises Eli.

Their assignment leads to the town of Mayfield, run with an iron fist by its statuesque namesake (Rebecca Root).

The Sisters Brothers stylishly evokes a volatile period in 19th-century American history, enriched by Audiard's outsider's perspective on western tradition.

Phoenix lassos the showier role but it's Reilly who repeatedly shoots to kill with his portrayal of a man of cool logic, who is prepared to sacrifice everything – including himself – to protect his kin.

"You're my little brother and I love you," he assures Charlie.

We hold Audiard's quirky picture in similarly high regard.

THE SISTERS BROTHERS (15, 122 mins) Western/Comedy/Adventure. John C Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rebecca Root, Allison Tolman, Rutger Hauer, Allison Tolman. Director: Jacques Audiard

RATING: 7/10

Released: April 5 (UK & Ireland, selected cinemas)

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