The Sisters Brothers (2018) Movie Review

By: Oberst Von Berauscht (A Toast) –

Brothers Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) Sisters are the enforcers of a powerful and wealthy tyrant known only as the Commodore (Rutger Hauer). The Brothers have an infamous reputation that they carry everywhere they go. Forged by a pivotal event in their early lives, Charlie took on a hopelessly heavy burden that he could not cope with. Charlie is a drunkard and braggart who seems to revel in their disreputable fame. Eli serves dual purposes as wingman in battle and nursemaid in most other respects.  Charlie is fiery of personality, Eli is quietly unassuming, and both are equally talented in the art of murder.

I will let you decide which one would be more pleasant company…

As the film begins, they have just wrapped up one bloody task and have been charged with a new one. A chemist (and part-time idealist) named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) has invented a formula to ease the process of gold mining. The Commodore wants the chemist dead, and to have the formula for himself.  John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), an agent of the Commodore, is sent ahead to track Warm and send for the brothers. As the brothers head towards their goal though, Eli expresses interest in leaving the Commodore’s employ, and then they discover that Morris has already done as much…

A Toast

The Sisters Brothers brilliantly circumvents the tropes of Western filmmaking. Where classical Westerns draw distinct lines of good and evil, and revisionist westerns blurred those lines, The Sisters Brothers swings the pendulum both ways. Despite the deep wrongs the Brothers perform, and the endless cycle of violence they reside in begetting more violence, there is a strange optimism in the story that could easily be overlooked by casual viewers.

The world of The Sisters Brothers is a reflection of the societal turmoil left in the wake Trump-era conservative politics.  The Commodore is a leader who rose to power through the use of unsavory means, and is used to getting his way. The Brothers are his strongest supporters in his charismatic rule due to his reputation and in spite of his increasingly unreliable promises. Neither Charlie nor Eli really know why they have stuck with the Commodore all these years, as clearly the promises he has made to them haven’t lived up to their expectations, and yet they go about their mission anyway. The Brothers live in a state of having to constantly be on the attack, for fear of appearing weak and being preyed upon themselves. No sooner is it that they attempt to pull away from this cycle do they find themselves targeted themselves. The fact that director Jacques Audiard chooses to never let you hear the Commodore makes this commentary even more sly.

“There is no one more sly and subtle than me… no one.”

The classical Western movie formula depicts the rough and untamed wilderness as something which a single individual or a small team of individuals can tame through their heroic or righteous acts. The Western is the one wholly original American fantasy mythos. Like the greatest Westerns, The Sisters Brothers uses America’s (largely fictionalized) historical frontier past to comment on contemporary society. Sisters is unique in that our protagonists set out for selfish reasons to accomplish an immoral task, and through a series of fortunate and misfortunate/tragic occurrences, they realize that their reasons for doing just about everything stems from a flawed belief system. They played a direct part in creating and perpetuating the perils that make their world so dangerous.

And this is where the optimism of the film comes in; even though the brothers ultimately find themselves once again on a path of violence and destruction, a cruel irony takes hold. As the Auriga of Roman lore would whisper into the ears of a triumphant general “remember you are mortal”, director Audiard demonstrates this in his own way.  The Brothers are given everything they wanted… and nothing. The emptiness of this leads them to a metaphorical rebirth in the epilogue to their story.  They give this “human” thing one more try, starting at the place where they themselves began.

Home is where the heart is, after all.

John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix may have seemed like an unusual pairing to cast as brothers on the surface. But both performers are closely guarded about their personal lives; both seem outwardly uncomfortable speaking about themselves, and yet both are capable of big and bold performances. This film is not just about siblings, it is a platonic romance. Eli and Charlie show deep devotion to each other, and often bicker like an aging married couple. The alchemy at work here produces pure gold from both performers.

Everybody’s after that gold…

Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed play out a different “couple” as Morris and Warm (respectively).  Their friendship is brought together not out of familial bonds, but of mutual need. Morris is not unlike Eli and Charlie, in that his early life forged a dark and cynical persona who is driven by those past traumas.  In Warm, he finds a man that is immediately intriguing, as he is not built the same way as most people he has known.  Warm is fully aware that he is unusual, that he has ideas that scare people. He doesn’t just think he can make the world a better place, he has a plan of exactly how to do it. Like all plans in this world, his does not exactly fall into place. Point of fact; his plans go monumentally wrong. And yet, by thinking so big and setting his sight so highly, he succeeds… albeit in a much smaller and subtler way.

Verdict

Like High Noon and The Big Country spoke to Cold-War era fears, The Sisters Brothers draws on the modern political climate with a story of bitter human nature that is spiked with a surprisingly idealistic message.

The Sisters Brothers (2018) Drinking Game

Take a Drink: anytime “The Commodore” is named

Take a Drink: for any clash of old and the new (toothbrushes for instance)

Take a Drink: for any use of “fuck”

Take a Drink: for every drink we see Phoenix take

Drink a Shot: for the spider

Drink a Shot: when either of the brothers kill someone

About Oberst von Berauscht

Oberst Von Berauscht once retained the services of a Gypsy to imbue in him the ability to accurately describe the artistic qualities of a film up to seven decimal points. To maintain this unique skill, he must feast on the blood of a virgin every Harvest Moon, or failing that (and he usually does), he can also make a dog do that thing they do where they twist their heads slightly (you know, when they're confused about something) at least a few times a week. I've gotten way off track here... The point is, Oberst is one of the website's founders, so... yeah

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