Jacques Audiard has been directing French films for almost 25 years (Rust and Bone, A Prophet), so how fitting is it that his first English-language film is a good ol’-fashioned Americana-laced Western? And sure, The Sisters Brothers may have been filmed entirely in Spain and Romania, but it feels as authentic as any Western to hit screens in recent memory. (In fact, 2015’s The Revenant and last year’s Hostiles are among the only others from the past ten years.)
Starring John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as the titular siblings, The Sisters Brothers tells the story of two bounty hunters riding through the Oregon Territory in the early 1850s. A clear homage to the Westerns of John Ford and John Wayne, the movie demonstrates the benefits a good story and robust characters over mindless violence and a meandering, lightweight plot.
The screenplay, which Audiard adapted with frequent collaborator Thomas Bidegain from Patrick deWitt’s 2011 novel, is a balanced, smart, and deliberate tale of greed that rings true from its incredible opening scene. The curtain rises on a quiet, dark landscape, but within seconds, the silence is shattered by gunshots and yelling as Charlie (Phoenix) and Eli (Reilly) dispatch their targets with ruthless precision.
From there, Audiard takes his time providing exposition, as we gradually learn the Sisters are in the employ of the Commodore (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Rutger Hauer). His latest mission for the brothers is to bring in Hermann Kermit Warm (a subtly engrossing Riz Ahmed), who the Commodore says stole from him. Detective John Morris (the always spot-on Jake Gyllenhaal) has been dispatched in advance to find Warm, with orders to hold him until the brothers arrive.
If everything went according to schedule, of course, there would be no need for a movie. It doesn’t take long for the plans to go off the rails, and it’s at that point where Audiard truly finds his rhythm. The cat-and-mouse game is broken up by smaller, perfectly placed vignettes (including a particularly harrowing one involving a spider), as along the way we learn more about the characters through their convincing performances—particularly Reilly’s; he’s never been better.
With the help of brilliant work from Cinematographer Benoît Debie (Submergence), including his noteworthy use of natural light from campfires and lanterns, Audiard has crafted an immersive film that, despite its excellence, will no doubt fly way, way under the radar and have to claw and scratch for every dollar it earns, but make no mistake about it—this is how the West is done.