Two sibling gunmen, whose last name is Sisters, are sent on a murderous mission during the California Gold Rush to track down a man possessing a much sought-after secret. The pursuit is leisurely, and director Jacques Audiard takes his time to carefully examine the depths of his characters. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
At first, the plot of “The Sisters Brothers” seems fairly straightforward. Out West in 1851 with the California Gold Rush in full swing, a malevolent tycoon dispatches a pair of gunmen to track down a prospector possessing a secret formula the guy claims is a surefire key to finding buried gold. Their mission: find him, get the formula by any means necessary, then kill him.
The killers, brothers Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) — whose last name is Sisters — are hard and ruthless men. They set off in pursuit of their quarry, a mild-mannered fellow by the name of Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). And what appears at the start to be a relatively uncomplicated chase situation turns out to be anything but.
In the first place, the pace of the chase is unhurried. Warm and a companion, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), have a big head start, and the brothers have a long way to go to catch up. They take their time.
Director/co-screenwriter Jacques Audiard, a French filmmaker making his first American movie, uses the time to carefully delineate the personalities of his characters.
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The brothers are a self-aware pair. Charlie believes their evil nature is a direct result of their father, a “mad alcoholic” whose “foul blood is in our veins.” That taint makes them “good at what we do,” he proudly asserts.
Eli is more thoughtful, and dreams of eventually leaving the killer’s life behind and maybe opening a store and raising a family. Charlie scoffs at his perceived weakness.
Reilly, an accomplished character actor with a long résumé, has the most prominent and resonant role. His work is not flashy, and he makes Eli a man of significant complexity, devoted to his brother but exasperated by the younger man’s drunkenness. Confident of his competence as a gunman, he displays awkward tenderness in a scene with a prostitute in which he expresses a yearning to hear “a kind word” directed his way.
The relationship of Warm and Morris shifts as the picture unfolds. Seemingly allies at first, they become adversaries.
And later, when the pursuers finally catch up to the pursued, the adversarial relationship of the brothers and their quarry also changes. In a long sequence, Audiard manages to create an incredible amount of tension in a situation where it’s unknown whether the four will turn on one another at any minute.
Adapting a prizewinning novel by Canadian writer Patrick deWitt, Audiard has made an atmospheric Western in which the four lead actors portray their characters with remarkable subtlety.
★★★½ “The Sisters Brothers,” with John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed. Directed by Jacques Audiard, from a screenplay by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, based on a novel by Patrick deWitt. 122 minutes. Rated R for violence including disturbing images, language and some sexual content. Opens Oct. 5 at multiple theaters.