The Sisters Brothers: French director, Canadian novel, American West, and perfect cast equals great character comedy

By Karen Gordon

Rating: A

A French writer/director, co-adapting a great Canadian novel about the American West, what could go wrong? In the case of The Sisters Brothers, nothing as it turns out.  

Jacques Audiard, who won the Palme D’Or for Deephan in 2015, takes on the Wild West and wins in this highly enjoyable adaptation of  Patrick deWitt’s award winning Canadian novel of the same name.

The book  won The Governor General’s Award, the Rogers Writer’s Trust award and the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for humour. It was also shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Giller Prize. 

 Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly have great cowboy comic chemistry in The Sisters Brothers

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly have great cowboy comic chemistry in The Sisters Brothers

Audiard co-wrote the screenplay with his frequent collaborator Thomas Bidegain. (And just in case it comes up in conversation,  this is the second time the pair have adapted a Canadian work for the big screen. They won a César Award for their adapation of Craig Davidson’s short story “Rust and Bone”) The Sisters Brothers is also Audiard’s first English-language film. 

Read our interview with author Patrick deWitt

And what a spot-on cast! Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly star as brothers Charlie and Eli Sisters, who make their living as frontier hit-men in the 1850s.  They work for the fearsome The Commodore (Rutger Hauer), who sends them off to kill the fabulously named prospector, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed).

Warm is on his way to San Francisco to make his fortune in the Gold Rush. The Commodore alleges that Warm, a chemist, has stolen something from him. But did he steal it, or is The Commodore prevaricating? 

Also on Warm’s trail is an articulate, somewhat melancholy detective, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who also works for The Commodore. He does the more delicate work of following clues to find the target, and sending notes and messages back to the brothers along a predetermined route.
While he’s doing that, the brothers hit the trail.  They have different temperaments, different habits (hint, Charlie likes to drink too much) and spend a chunk of the film just dealing with each other, and aiming to stay out of trouble. But guess how that goes. 

The pairing of the Phoenix and Reilly is genius, and Audiard seems to instinctively “get” the mood of the American Western in all of its sweaty, dirty, gritty,  untamed glory. 

In the end the joy of the movie is in watching these four very different characters interact.

The Sisters Brothers. Written and directed by Jacques Audiard. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly and Jake Gyllenhaal. Opens in Toronto and Vancouver, Friday, Oct. 5, and across Canada, Friday, Oct. 12