1851. A frontier town in the gold rush. After amputating a man’s arm, a surgeon massages his achy hands, fingers stiff from sawing through all that bone. It’s details like this that make this Western such a pleasure. The Sisters Brothers is the French director of Un Prophète Jacques Audiard’s first film in English, adapting a novel by Patrick deWitt, and the acting is off the scale. John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix play brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters, hired killers in the pay of a wily old businessman called the Commodore (Rutger Hauer, though sadly we don’t get much of him).
Reilly’s Eli is the older brother, podgier, softer and suffering from killing fatigue. It’s time to call it a day, he tells his brother Charlie (Phoenix), quit while they’re ahead, open a store maybe? After a botched killing – giving us the film’s most striking image: a galloping horse on fire, lighting the night sky – the Commodore switches the pecking order, promoting wildcard Charlie to “lead man”. And Phoenix is precisely the man you want to play the hot-headed drunken little bro, giggly and almost certainly psychotic. Both look the part, skin tanned to the colour of stewed tea.
The brothers’ next mission is riding to San Francisco where dandified detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) will be waiting with their next victim, Hermann Kermit (Riz Ahmed), a chemist and gold prospector who claims to have invented a chemical formula to divine gold. Though as Charlie says, that sounds like solid gold bullshit. It’s the brothers’ job to torture the formula out of him. As they speed through Wild West towns, a parallel story unfurls as Morris tricks Kermit into friendship and lures him to San Francisco.
If this level of honesty was applied to James Bond, 007 would get behind the wheel of his Aston Martin after a few martinis and reverse into a bollard
That convergence of these two narratives should be the end of the movie. But instead it plods on with an extra bit of story as Kermit dangles the possibility of another life in front of detective Morris and Eli – both feeling a kind of spiritual exhaustion. Kermit, it turns out, is heading off to establish a utopian society in Texas. Audiard’s films frequently turn on a character’s transformation – in Un Prophète it was the petty crook’s journey to gangland boss. Here’s it’s Eli evolving from stone-cold killer into a man who cries when his horse dies. The civilising of the cowboy is hilariously demonstrated by his growing interest in a new-fangled gadget he discovers in a general store – the toothbrush.
This pleasingly talky movie rides roughshod over the Clint Eastwood model of the taciturn gunslinger. Eli and Charlie are total chatterboxes; they don’t shut up. I enjoyed the leisurely pace here, though you might find it all a bit blathery. Eli wants to settle down, get married – has got his eye on a teacher at home. His brother raises an eyebrow, alarmed. Isn’t Eli worried about reproducing, since their father was stark-raving mad? This is not how cowboys are supposed to talk. But Audiard isn’t fussed about the mythologies; he’s more interested in the texture of life in the Wild West. So with a belly full of whiskey a cowboy falls off his horse, face-planting into the dirt. If this level of honesty was applied to James Bond, 007 would get behind the wheel of his Aston Martin after a few martinis and reverse into a bollard.