Thicker Than Water: Our Review of ‘The Sisters Brothers’

Posted in Festival Coverage, Movies, Theatrical, TIFF '18 by - October 05, 2018
Thicker Than Water: Our Review of ‘The Sisters Brothers’

The relationship between brothers runs deep, especially in the west…

The Sisters Brothers is a dust covered character study that looks deep into nature of relationships between brothers and it works as a master class and it plays as less of straight western and more like a character study that could have played out in a New York apartment rather than in the Oregon dustbowl of the 1800’s.

This is the saga of Eli and Charlie Sisters (John C Reilly & Joaquin Phoenix); an infamous duo of assassins for hire on the plains of Oregon during the 1850’s.  However on their latest assignment at the behest of the Commodore (Rutger Hauer) they are hot on the trail of a gold prospector and chemist (Riz Ahmed) with a new way to pan for gold.  With their associate John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) also on this prospector’s trail when these four men finally come together they all find themselves at a crossroads in their lives wondering what their next steps should be as they stare into the face of a future filled with the potential of gold.

It’s kind of funny that this is an American Western, from a book by a Canadian author, adapted for the screen and directed by Frenchmen plays out in this fashion.  It’s in many ways the embodiment of the American dream as these are all characters who just want to improve their lives by any means necessary.

Director and co-screenwriter Jacques Audiard brings a humanistic layer to the narrative that has rarely been seen in the western genre and when it does show up it’s usually in more of a dark and foreboding manner like in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. 

This is a film about family (Audiard even dedicates it to his brother in the credits) and with a gentle and subtle score from Alexandre Desplat and stunning yet simply cinematography from Benoit Debie there’s nothing in this film that is supposed to visually overpower you and it quite frankly never does.  The brothers and the other characters are always in the forefront thanks to distinct and strong character development in the script and four very different actors up to the task of trying to capture the essence of what this story is all about.

John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix truly do provide the yin and the yang dynamic in the brotherly relationship.  They are both incredibly different people yet wholly dedicated to each other at the exact same time and it all makes for a fascinating look at the overbearing nature of masculinity in a world that is driven by it.  These are tired men who don’t want to shoehorn themselves into a societal mold that is expected of them, they’ve grown beyond all that and just want to find a measure of peace and stop living the lives that were thrust upon them in an abusive home.

Riz Ahmed and Jake Gyllenhaal share that desire to break free from the trappings that surround them.  They both recognize the inherent danger around themselves on a daily basis and want away to break out of what is expected of them.  When all four of these men come together the dynamic is stunning because in a hyper masculine setting like the wild west, it’s rare to see four male characters actually talking to one another and allowing themselves to have vulnerable moments.

At the end of the day, The Sisters Brothers actually manages to effective a quite redefinition of the western because even though this pair has spent their lives killing people in order to get by, they come to the realization that they are so much very more than the brutal and unfair expectations put on them by a lout of a father.  It’s a lesson that rings true more than ever today as men are confronted with the expectations of being the kind of person that just doesn’t fit in society any more.

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David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like Examiner.com, Criticize This, Dork Shelf (Now That Shelf), to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema.
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