“The Sisters Brothers” combines a violent Western and an offbeat road (trail?) tale with wonderfully entertaining and surprisingly affecting brotherly love-hate dynamics driving its loose-flowing story. Feelings outperform firepower in the rousing English-language debut (opening Friday at the California Theatre in Berkeley) from French writer-director Jacques Audiard.
Audiard, whose credits include “A Prophet” and “Dheepan,” makes movies about men from rough origins who, inspired by their exposure to peaceful and compassionate people, rethink their path. With “The Sisters Brothers,” adapted with Thomas Bidegain from the Patrick deWitt novel, he winningly continues on that track.
Suggesting the work of Tarantino, the Coens, Peckinpah and a bit of John Sayles, while containing superb juxtapositions of brutality and humanity all Audiard’s own, the 1851-set story centers on bickering, comically surnamed Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) Sisters, who work as assassins for a barely seen crime boss (Rutger Hauer).
Eli is the older, calmer, kinder brother. Charlie is tougher but compromised by drunkenness. Both have known little but violence since childhood.
Introduced in a stunning botched-raid sequence, the brothers soon embark on a mission: Kill a chemist named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), after forcing Warm to reveal the contents of a substance he developed that helps prospectors find gold.
John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a scout, has tracked down Warm and intends to hand him over to Eli and Charlie. But when Warm turns out to be a likable idealist with utopian dreams, Morris teams up with him.
Advancing from Oregon to San Francisco, the brothers’ journey includes everything from gold prospecting to a perilous saloon to a creepy spider to current topics such as trauma and environmental destruction. A rift forms when Charlie can’t handle Eli’s talk of retiring.
The movie doesn’t hit as hard as the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” and Audiard resolves the brothers’ predicaments a little too neatly. And Gyllenhaal’s character, who has an affected cultured accent, needs sharper definition.
But Audiard, who can shift tones in a flash, has made a personality-packed, splendid adventure. It also succeeds as a consideration of what being a man, and a human being, entails.
Despite the big-picture grandness suggested by Benoit Debie’s cinematography, Audiard appears fondest of small moments. A scene in which Eli baffles a hardened prostitute when asking her to engage in some sweet role-playing relating to a schoolteacher he knew ages ago is particularly memorable.
While Phoenix delivers the reckless and playful goods as Charlie, the movie is Reilly’s. His lead character is terrifically dangerous, forlorn and funny. The two actors sizzle together.
Carol Kane, in a small but knockout turn, also is noteworthy, and Alexandre Desplat’s tone-shifting score is another of many highlights.
The Sisters Brothers
Three and a half stars
Starring: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed
Written by: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain
Directed by: Jacques Audiard
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes