Rating: 3 stars
“The Sisters Brothers,” a western set in Oregon and California during the febrile heights of the Gold Rush, opens with an arresting scene: a shootout filmed almost entirely in darkness, with the sparks from popping guns its only illumination. The sequence ends with a terrifying barn fire, and the spectral image of a horse running away from the carnage in flames.
From the get-go, then, it’s obvious that “The Sisters Brothers” will subvert typical western spectacle even as it indulges it. A schematically familiar but gently funny picaresque reminiscent of “True Grit” and other mission-driven adventures, this adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s novel doesn’t necessarily break new ground. But it aerates what’s already been well-trod, offering an alternately pitiless and tenderhearted lens on such hardy themes as character, filial loyalty and American progress at its most naive and voraciously destructive.
John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix play Eli and Charlie Sisters, accomplished hit men who are enlisted by a powerful businessman named the Commodore to assassinate Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who the Commodore says has stolen a piece of intellectual property from him. A detective named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) is already on the case, tracking Warm so that all the assassins need to do when they meet up with their quarry is ready, aim, fire. “The Sisters Brothers” traces the title characters’ event-filled journey to their appointed deed, which includes the ambushes, bar fights and visits to brothels that one would expect from a movie dedicated to the most classic conventions of its genre.
Luckily, this particular iteration also includes some amusing interactions, between Eli and Charlie — who poke and prod each other with brotherly rancor and affection — and between Warm and Morris, the latter of whom speaks with florid elegance about forming a Utopian community someday (the location of his choice is one of the film’s funniest punchlines). Directed by the fine French filmmaker Jacques Audiard from a script he co-wrote with Thomas Bidegain, “The Sisters Brothers” is spiked with sequences of bloody violence and suffering, often having to do with the horses Eli instinctively loves and has tragically poor luck with. But there’s a sweetness to the movie — underlined by Alexandre Desplat’s gorgeously lyrical score — that gives it a beating, irresistible heart.
In large part that is thanks to its superb cast, all of whom deliver playful, sincere performances, both in their two-handed sequences and when the men finally collide and the story takes some brutal and comical turns. Like the John Ford and Robert Altman films it evokes, the universe of “The Sisters Brothers” is grand, mythic and overwhelmingly male. But, as in the similarly revisionist bagatelle “Damsel” that came out this summer, here the filmmakers seem more interested in critiquing traditional macho notions of ambition and impunity than valorizing them. The mid-19th century during which the film is set is a time of change and innovation; Eli becomes an early adopter of a newfangled gizmo called the toothbrush, which plays a role in a perfectly on-point moment later on. The philosophical showdown between highfalutin’ democratic ideals and Darwinian lust for money, power and prestige becomes the real center of “The Sisters Brothers,” as each man casts his lot with a radically different — and hugely consequential — version of the future.
This is Audiard’s first English-language film, and he evinces sure instincts with both the visual and spoken vernaculars. “The Sisters Brothers” looks terrific and, propelled by Desplat’s beautiful music, ambles along with pleasing, if routinely episodic, ease until its unexpectedly touching conclusion. Like the opening scenes, the finale of “The Sisters Brothers” is another subversion, this time by way of a dreamlike quietude and, of all things, gentleness. The sweet relief is breathtaking in its simplicity and emotional force.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong language, some sexual material and violence, including disturbing images. 121 minutes.