In The Sisters Brothers, the Only Thing Wilder Than the Frontier Is Joaquin Phoenix

The darkly comic Western is Jacques Audiard’s English-language debut, but he already has a feel for the territory.

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly, both on horseback, in a still from the film.
Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly in The Sisters Brothers.
Annapurna Pictures

The wildest beast in The Sisters Brothers, a formula-tossing Western set in 1850s Oregon, isn’t the horse that hurtles desperately across the plain, unaware that it’ll never outrun the flames on its head, neck, and back. Nor is it the tarantula that crawls into the open mouth of a sleeping character, making its presence known only through the venom that courses through its victim overnight. Rather, it’s Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix), a shrewd but impulse-driven hired gun whose ease with violence allows him to thrive under a rainstorm or a hail of bullets, but nowhere resembling civilization.

The other half of the fearsome Sisters brothers is Eli (John C. Reilly), who increasingly finds that his self-appointed duty as his younger brother’s keeper has made him an exile from the rest of humanity. Director Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone, the Palme d’Or–winning Dheepan, the Grand Prix–winning A Prophet) gets a surprising amount of comic mileage from Eli’s bewildered but curious adoption of a newfangled invention that never feels right in his hand: the toothbrush. The cast’s ruddy complexions, worn-out costumes, and exposure to the elements suggest Eli’s true nature. Callused by necessity, he yearns to embrace his softness. But there’s always another job, another set of foes, and never enough money to satisfy.

The Sisters Brothers is about two attempted tamings: Eli’s of his brother, and 19th-century settlers’ of the last stretch of the continental U.S. If the former plays out as a dark comedy, the latter is sheer tragedy: an ecological nightmare, a waste of idealism, a transcontinental trail of broken dreams, never-ending sacrifices to capitalism. Unlike many of his European compatriots, Audiard, a filmmaker long attuned to racial and economic issues, is more than convincing in his depiction of the American West in his English-language debut, its perceptive and compassionate details finding harmony with the script’s genre elements. But it’s the central fraternal relationship that makes this adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s novel a near-masterpiece—a simmering chase movie that gradually heats up to a searing family drama that wonders how to care for a loved one that’s impossible to live with.

In the film’s first half, the brothers’ storyline crisscrosses with those of their targets: a bankrupt chemist with the improbable name of Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) and a secret formula for detecting gold in the river, as well as the seemingly well-heeled tracker John Morris (a miscast Jake Gyllenhaal, struggling with a muddled British or mid-Atlantic accent), who’s working in concert with the Sisterses. In a probably self-dooming decision, Morris decides to take pity on the baby-faced Warm, a quixotic loner more driven by the peace that he believes money can buy than the gold itself. Audiard requests some patience from viewers in the early scenes: It’s not until halfway through the film that the primary characters’ motivations become clear. The second hour, though, strides toward its impressively unstinting resolution with magisterial confidence. With the characters finally stripped of the hardness they’d been forced to wear, their raw selves glisten in the sun until it’s time to wearily tie the carapace back on.

The difference between the brothers, it turns out, is that one can envision a future, while the other can only live in the present. Charlie’s intoxicants of choice are liquor, rage, and his own sense of invincibility. Eli is exhausted by having to contend with all three, along with the toils and dangers of the road. (It’s in his mouth that the spider leaves its poison. Later, a bear attacks his horse in the middle of night, and he has no choice but to watch its clawed face gradually become overrun with infection.) A row of mangled, abandoned wooden furniture along the shore—hopes of home dashed—reminds Eli what he’s giving up for his little brother. Cinematographer Benoît Debie captures both the sublimity of a land resisting conquest and the lived-in details that make each footstep a bone-creaking ache.

When the brothers arrive at an outpost of a town or the rowdy tech capital of San Francisco (though for Eli, cutting-edge technology means a toilet connected to indoor plumbing), the suspense over their survival is quickly replaced by tension over when Charlie will fuck things up for both of them. In the towns, Charlie sniffs after whores, but Eli just feels the absence of the woman he loves. Allison Tolman and Carol Kane stand out in tiny roles, though British trans comedian Rebecca Root probably deserves better than an assertive madam whom the brothers seem to hate for doing only what men have been doing for millennia. As nearly every character, including the brothers, will discover at some point in the film, a good man is hard to find.