The American West, that expanse of isolation and sweeping beauty, always had potential for more humane stories than most Westerns have given us. France's Jacques Audiard has now tossed his Stetson into the ring with the surprisingly kind and moving The Sisters Brothers, based on a novel by Patrick deWitt. Ultimately a story about brotherhood, friendship and the insecurity of life in a violent place, the film injects a sweetness and innocence into the genre, mostly through one stellar performance by John C. Reilly.
Reilly plays Eli, one half of the Sisters brothers, a crack-shot murderer for hire who tempers the erratic sensibilities of Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix), whose anger is as quick as his gun. The brothers are commissioned by their boss, the Commodore (Rutger Hauer), to find and torture a pioneer chemist, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), to extract the man's chemical formula for discovering gold. Warm is already being tracked by another Commodore man, John Morris, played by Jake Gyllenhaal with a precise and effective mid-Atlantic accent that nicely contrasts the folksiness of the brothers. Though the three Commodore men have murdered and schemed and stolen, they're depicted generously as tired men just performing their jobs.
Reilly exhibits a bruised vulnerability as the shy, perpetually sighing but protective older brother. Charlie, meanwhile, is the kind of disordered and damaged man we've see Phoenix play before, but the actors elevate the characters to create something fresh in Westerns -- a genuine depiction of sibling love. They'll bicker bitterly until Charlie does something he can't take back, and just when it seems like that's the end of their relationship, Eli finds a path into forgiveness.