If you grew up on John Ford Westerns, Jacques Audiard’s new film “The Sisters Brothers” may feel a bit strange. Of course, anyone who is old enough to have seen any of Ford’s films debut in theaters is likely to think this whole contemporary world is strange, so …
And, look, it’s not as if I’m talking about quality here. Audiard, the French-born director who gave us the superb 2009 French-immigrant mob study “A Prophet,” knows how to make a movie. His adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s 2011 novel is well-crafted, from its ability to make Romanian and Spanish countrysides look like 1851 Oregon to the horrifically beautiful sequences featuring shootouts in the dark.
It’s the storyline, taken apparently from DeWitt’s novel, that is different. Though titled “The Sisters Brothers,” said brothers Charlies Sisters (played by Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli Sisters (played by John C. Reilly) are only half the story. Or maybe three-fifths of it, anyway. The other part involves the characters of John Morris (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and Herman Warm (played by Riz Ahmed).
Charlie and Eli are hired killers who work for a mysterious land baron out of Oregon City known only as The Commodore. They run down The Commodore’s enemies, usually killing them, and not always in the most efficient manner – unless you consider a pile of bodies, burned barns and incinerated horses a sign of efficiency.
Morris and Warm, the other parts of the equation, are being hunted by the Sisters’ Brothers – and, yes, the unlikely contrast of those two words set next to one another plays into the film’s overall tone, which melds humor with moments of unbridled brutality.
Warm is a scientist who has devised a formula for finding gold (to use a Hitchcockian term, this is the McGuffin). Morris is a private investigator who has been hired, also by The Commodore, to find Warm and hold him until Charlie and Eli catch up to them. But then Morris, a man with a conscience, is talked by Warm into partnering up with him – and so they go on the run, with Charlie and Eli on their tail.
That’s pretty much the whole plot of Audiard’s film, and it leads to a series of sequences that feel less like the resolution of a complete narrative arc than just the end of one plotline and the beginning of something new. Which is to say that the whole of “The Sisters Brothers” feels like a movie in search of a point.
Again, though, this isn’t necessarily a lacking of quality. It’s just a different kind of moviegoing experience. Audiard – and maybe novelist deWitt – are using the tropes of the traditional Western and adjusting it to contemporary tastes. So the film’s characters – well played by all its principals, but especially Phoenix and Reilly – express humor, frustration, the occasional venting of rage and, at times, a longing for something better in ways that would not seem strange in, say, a Quentin Tarantino script.
So, at that junction where John Wayne meets Jules Winnfield? That’s where you’re likely to stumble over the Sisters Brothers.