The Sisters Brothers is so entrenched in the look and feel and smell of 1851 America that it’s like leafing through a series of dusty wild west lithographs.
There’s a plot – a pair of hired guns hunt their next mark – but director Jacques Audiard is more interested in the ride than the destination. It’s a road movie, of sorts, a horseback journey through stunning, dangerous terrain, the audience tagging along as a third cowboy. It revels in tangerine sunsets and torrential downpours. Entire scenes take place in pitch darkness, the sound of cicadas only broken by the violent crash of gunfire. Every new frontier town feels ripe for exploration, each impeccably costumed extra a potential hero in the story of this rapidly changing land.
John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix play the titular brothers, a pair of ageing gunslingers obsessed with their legacy, the cowboy mythos in microcosm. But in the flesh, they’re sad, broken men; Phoenix’s Charlie Sister is a bitter drunk while Reilly’s Eli is a gentle man trapped in a cruel world. They’re fantastic together, their scenes riding the emotional gamut, touching brotherly japes turning on a dime into deep existential angst.
Chemist Hermann Kermit Warm and his soon-to-be travelling companion John Morris (Riz Ahmed and Jake Gyllenhaal) are a genteel counterpart to the louche brothers. Warm dreams of a better society, hoping his “invention”, a chemical that can detect gold in rivers, will finance his utopia.
When the four finally meet amid a hail of bullets, the film takes a wonderfully surreal detour into magical realism. There’s a Coen Brothers-esque absurdity to the scenario, mixed with the kind of raw emotion Audiard has captured in his previous work (A Prophet, Rust and Bone, Dheepan). At its heart, The Sisters Brothers is a wistful allegory about man’s greed, how a little – or even a lot – is never enough, and how we will happily kill each other, or the entire planet, for a fistful of dollars.
It’s brilliant, riveting from start to finish despite its plodding pace, the best film so far from a director at the top of his game.