The Sisters Brothers (Annapurna Pictures, R)

Going into The Sisters Brothers with as much information as you can get, gleaned from trailers, bylines, and imdb plot summaries, will do nothing to inform you on the film you will see. There is a significant set of baggage that comes with being a “western.” We all see John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Clint Eastwood. We all see gunfights, damsels, outlaws, canyons and southwestern plateaus. The Sisters Brothers is none of that and still, somehow, all of that.

The film takes place along the West Coast, from Myrtle Creek, Oregon to San Francisco, California, a fresh feeling locale for its lack of consistent use. The landscape here is lush, wooded, rainy, mountainous. Jacques Audiard’s (Rust and Bone, A Prophet) foray into the American deep west is beautiful and stark all at once. Complemented by Benoît Debie’s (Enter the Void) extraordinarily sparse, deceptively creative cinematography, The Sisters Brothers is surprisingly artistic. And not because one doesn’t expect a modern western to be artistically expressed, but because the vehicle for that expression is unexpected. Perspective seeps from the characters in the quiet moments, creative scene changes frame objects of importance, and Joaquin Phoenix takes a moment to address the audience, as if he were the Greek Chorus.

And then there are the actors. Joaquin Phoenix (Her, Gladiator) is a magnificent, commanding force amplified by the unpredictably masterful performance of John C. Reilly (Step Brothers, Talladega Nights). Reilly and Phoenix are an impressive duet, sharing the screen well and dominating the screen when called to action. Both move the film along in deep, emotional ways. Riz Ahmed (Rogue One, Nightcrawler) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler, Demolition) bring their own dynamic to the film, contrasting the violence and anger of The Sisters Brothers with dreams of quieter times and hopes of democratic civility.

All of this mixes together to create a film that, rather than just being a “Western” with a capital W, feels like a story about people who lived in the American West, a distinction that I believe does the film a great deal of justice. These characters feel lived in, worn, a piece of their world. The way that Audiard uses that to his advantage is immediately felt. This is a film that only goes to one “large, notable” city, and it spends all of 15 minutes there. Every other locale is dirty, small, personal. This lends itself to a story that feels right where it belongs. A world of frighteningly loud, disorienting gunfights that shake your bones. A world of toil and struggle that gets beneath your skin. But most importantly, a world where hope is lying just within an arm’s reach.

The Sisters Brothers is a story about the Prodigal Son, only in this version of the story, his big brother followed him, trying to bring him home. It is a story about the destruction of one’s hubris at the price of another’s innocence. Ultimately, it is a story of the futility of vengeance, pride, anger, and violence. An ambitious story to attempt, and one that is accomplished with aplomb. | Caleb Sawyer

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