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Non-Review Review: The Sisters Brothers

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

The Sisters Brothers is a charming and deeply unfocused modern western.

Adapted from Patrick deWitt’s novel of the same time, The Sisters Brothers is a tale of two bounty hunters at work on the frontier. Working for the mysterious (and ominous) “Commodore”, Charlie and Eli Sisters are men of violence who stalk the wilderness in search of those who have wronged (or, to quote Charlie, “victimised”) their employer. However, the film is about more than just that. As with so many westerns, it is a story of encroaching modernity and civilisation atop a foundation of brutality and violence, and efforts to navigate the liminal space between the two.

Brothers’ keepers.

The Sisters Brothers works best when it focuses on its core cast, especially the eponymous murderous siblings played by Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly. There is an appealing tragedy to these two men and how they face the changing times. Charlie seems unwilling to acknowledge civilisation and society, revelling in debauchery and indulgence. Eli imagines himself capable of the sort of change that such a transition would demand from him. Pheonix and Reilly layer their performances in contradictions and nuance, suggesting life beneath the archetypes.

However, The Sisters Brothers is simply too unfocused and too meandering to completely work. This is particularly apparent when the film indulges in any number of narrative diversions, or when the film eschews its core narrative altogether to embrace a more philosophical perspective. The Sisters Brothers has great ideas, but those ideas tend to diffuse without a strong narrative structure around them. The Sisters Brothers often feels in need of a tighter edit and a strong script polish, which is a shame considering the strengths that it demonstrates otherwise.

Shore thing.

Late in the film, the eponymous duo strike up an unlikely alliance of convenience. There is a lack of trust on both sides. One of the rival party storms off, making his distaste for the arrangement clear. “He’s going to have to change,” Charlie Sisters warns the negotiator on the opposite side of the debate. His counterpart responds, “He’ll change. We’ll all change. We don’t have any other choice.” This is perhaps the closest that The Sisters Brothers comes to outlining a thesis statement, focusing on the idea that everything is impermanent and everyone must adapt or die.

The film unfolds against the backdrop of a rapidly-changing west, as settlers push further and further towards the unyielding and uncompromising Pacific Ocean. John Morris, serving as an advanced scout for the brothers, notes as much in his journal as he presses forward in his pursuit of his quarry. “I travelled through places that didn’t exist three months ago,” he muses. “First there are tents, then houses. Then, two months later, shops with women fiercely discussing the price of flower.” Civilisation arrives so fast, and with so little thought for what it replaces.

The rifleman.

Charlie and Eli Sisters seems completely unprepared for that change. Charlie is happy with lawlessness, with brutality and violence. Eli seems more sensitive and more reflective, more open to the possibilities of a changing world. Eli spends much of The Sisters Brothers in awe of modernity. He is impressed with a toothbrush that he finds at the back of a novelty store, and so excited at the prospect of a flushing toilet that he insists that Charlie absolutely must witness all of this firsthand. Charlie cannot fathom a day when his brutality will not be needed; Eli longs for it.

Tracking their prey through the American wilderness, Charlie and Eli discover that it is no easy path. A series of missteps and complications delay the confrontation, allowing their target to further evade them on his journey to San Francisco. Looking out over the valleys of the western states, Charlie muses, “This is the furthest we’ve ever gone.” Reflecting his own desire for self-betterment and self-improvement, Eli responds, “In conversation?” Of course not. Charlie does not think in such terms. Charlie is simply talking in geographical terms.

Fur-ther afield.

However, these sorts of stories equate geography with psychology. The journey westward is a metaphorical evolution for both Eli and Charlie. In fact, on reaching the western coast, the pair are confronted with the realities of a modern world that has already passed them by. Charlie likes to imagine that he can roam forever on the plains, and stalk forever through the wilderness, but Eli seems more cognisant of the reality that the pair must one day run out of west.

The Sisters Brothers returns time and time again to this question about how best to face an uncertain future and to navigate a dangerous present. The characters within the film are all hunting a prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm. A chemist by trade, Warm claims to have invented a new mode of prospecting that will offer untold financial reward. Warm plans to use his profits to fund a grand social experiment, to build a better world, to redesign a future that is no longer confined by petty greed and meaningless violence.

A cut above.

The characters in The Sisters Brothers are each trapped by their past. Charlie and Eli repeatedly debate their father. Charlie insists that he was mad. “Our father drank,” Eli insists. The characters wonder if they can ever escape the trauma that their father inflicted upon them, whether that trauma is carried in blood or in memory. Charlie seems to have reconciled himself to dying as the end of his line, asking Eli whether he would ever consider having children. “Not nervous about replicating ourselves?” he asks, wondering if to have children would be to doom them.

For his own part, the more erudite John Morris muses on the paradox that even trying to escape from his own father means that his life is defined by that relationship. He reflects of this revelation, “The opinions that I thought I had of my own volition, were indeed dictated by my hatred of that man.” Nothing ever exists in isolation. Nothing is ever truly created in a vacuum. No matter what desires a person might have to be free of their past, there is a sense in which it must always follow them, even as a new world is erected around them.

Between a rock and some horse play.

The Sisters Brothers works relatively well when it focuses on the stories of its four leads; on John Morris stalking Herman Warm, and on the Sisters Brothers racing to intercept them. There is a tightness to that simple structure that allows for more indulgent and philosophical exchanges between the various players, allowing room for scenes in which the cast bounce off one another. Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed demonstrate the same chemistry that they had in Nightcrawler, but the film belongs to John C. Reilly who creates a genuinely sympathetic killer.

The Sisters Brothers runs into trouble when it diverts from that basic set-up, allowing its attention to wander and allowing itself to get sidetracked with a series of episodic adventures. This is most obvious during one interlude in which the eponymous bounty hunters stay the night in a small community that has been very aggressively shaped in the image of its founder, Mayfield. Even the whiskey is called Mayfield. It’s an interesting diversion thematically, reinforcing several of the film’s big ideas, but it is narratively inert. It feels like the film gets stuck in a loop.

Gonna paint a wagon,
Gonna paint it red.

This happens again towards the climax of the story, when the film abandons the core plot focusing on that westward chase. It is a clever switch, and plenty of great movies have taken sharper (or larger) turns in their third acts, but the issue is that the plot of the film evaporates and nothing emerges to replace it. The third act of The Sisters Brothers involves a lot of characters sitting around as the movie reiterates core themes that it already clearly articulated while telling its own central story. It saps any momentum from the film, and feels largely unnecessary.

This is a shame, as there are a host interesting ideas nested within The Sister Brothers. In particular, its closing scene offers an interesting answer to its central meditations on what it means to move through an ever-changing world by providing an answer that is both very apparent and also somewhat unexpected. The Sisters Brothers is perhaps too much like its protagonists for its own good. It runs out of story and ends up stuck in place.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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