TIFF Review: ‘The Sisters Brothers’ is an oddly sweet western


Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is north of the border all week long for the Toronto International Film Festival; click here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our official preview.

It’s been a while since we’ve had a good revisionist western hit cinemas — the last that I’ve seen being S. Craig Zahler’s gold-hearted gorefest Bone Tomahawk — but Jacques Audiard has a new offering that may very well delight you in the sweet, if dark, The Sisters Brothers.

Adapted from the novel by Patrick deWitt, the film tells of the titular brothers — Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix, continuing his excellent year) — and their adventures as they track an inventor named Hermann Kermit Warmm (Riz Ahmed) and his pretentious companion John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) across the Pacific Northwest into California. Warmm has apparently invented a formula for a material that will help separate gold from sediment in gold-rushed California rivers, and the Sisters’ boss wants it found so he can use it for his own money-making purposes. Along the way, they’ll deal with gangsters and bounty hunters who want the same score for themselves, and they’ll show why they earned their reputation as the deadliest men in the Northwest and question if they really want that moniker for themselves after all.


Audiard fills his film with intriguing images — an opening gunfight set entirely in darkness at a ranch house illuminated exclusively by the powder flashes from the participant’s weapons, the luminescent glow of gold hidden beneath a river’s streams — and they support the odd tone of the film in an impressionistic way. He knows how to manage his four-man ensemble, as well, ensuring that no character is exclusively comic relief or on the barriers of the film, and every member gets the chance to make their mark.

Reilly is the show-stopper here, but that’s just what happens when you cast an actor of his caliber in the kind of weirdly sweet and endearing role here and pair him up with a hyper-modern actor like Phoenix, who simply is delightful with how out of place he is in the setting. The two have fun bringing a bit of light to a film that would be terribly bleak in another filmmaker’s hands, and the result is something that can’t be missed for western adherents or devoted fans of the cast.

I would pay good money to see Reilly and Phoenix act in a film together every two years in a different genre each time around based on their work in The Sisters Brothers, and that’s a strong endorsement.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of TIFF.