From recent releases such as The Rider (2017) and Thoroughbreds (2018), and even as far back as The Godfather (1972), there is an obsession in filmmaking to have horses die to serve metaphoric purposes.
No spoiler to 2018’s Western-dark-comedy The Sisters Brothers, horses somewhat buck this trend to serve as something functional and representative of the titular brothers; Joaquin Phoenix’s Charlie Sisters, who is as wild as he is unpredictable, and John C. Reilly’s Eli Sisters, a man who longs for tranquility but is beholden to the reigns held by his rider.
Auteur filmmaker Jacques Audiard delivers an impressively clean take on the Old West, with The Sisters Brothers succeeding in elevating the Western narrative thanks to layered characters and modish visuals.
The Sisters Brothers follows Phoenix & Reilly’s pursuit of wealth and their relationship upon the meandering journey. Phoenix, an unhinged man that acts with reckless abandon is no stranger to playing alcoholic and dangerous characters with Reilly, who continues an impressive run of diverse acting credits (ignoring 2018’s Holmes and Watson), coming as an exceptional surprise as a conflicted man damaged by the actions of his brother though obliged to protect him. Reilly and Phoenix dazzle as the respective brothers and create characters whose legacy precedes them as they easily dispense of brigades despite being heavily outnumbered.
The film primarily focuses on the Sisters’ pursuit of Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed, the latter rumoured to possess a concoction that can change the outcome of the gold rush. Both supporting actors shine in their roles with Ahmed, in particular, having the most interesting character as a man of questionable morals that dreams of an anti-consumerist society despite a determination to find gold.
There is a pursuit of many in The Sisters Brothers, whether it be in terms of gold or escaping their current life, and the dedication of the characters to achieve this by any measure, insanity or not, is compelling and shows great curiosity from Audiard. Tinges of humour carry on throughout, with many of the characters finding others’ dialogue ridiculous and all too quickly calling this out.
Visually captivating, the film presents a lushness rarely seen in Westerns thanks in large part to the direction being unafraid to utilise vast landscapes and diverse colour palettes. Cinematography plays to darkness with the use of light from gunfire being stylishly beguiling and adding a layer of danger in the Sisters’.
Where it may be attractive to enumerate the work of Audiard and dismiss his first foray into Western cinema (and whether his said prestige translates into American film), doing so would be of detriment to appreciating The Sisters Brothers and lessen its message of greed, authority and the long-lasting impact of familial trauma.
Filmed in France, Spain, and Romania. Despite the film’s American setting, none of the scenes were shot in the United States.