The fantasy of the cowboy is one of liberty and power that is distinctly American. We imagine him riding high on a saddle, the Wild West his to explore and dominate. His hat makes for a striking silhouette as his hips swing with a masculine swagger. His gun outstretched to bend the wilderness and wickedness to his will. He is a folk hero, a good guy with a gun, a legend who refuses to play by the rules of a society he nonetheless defends selflessly. But not every guy with a gun is good. And not every cowboy is a hero.
Though set in 1851, Jacques Audiard’s bittersweet Western The Sisters Brothers has a modern message about American masculinity. Based on the book by Patrick DeWitt, the story centers on the titular twosome, a scruffy band of brothers who work as muscle for a merciless Commodore. The film begins with their brutal botching of a job to kill one thief who dared cross their boss. Six or seven men are sloppily slain while their barn is set aflame with a herd of doomed horses trapped inside. The Sisters Brothers always get their man. But the costs are often high and gruesome. This weighs on older brother Eli (John C. Reilly), who has a gentle heart despite his violent vocation. He sentimentally treasures a shawl given to him by an old flame and offers kind words to strangers and brothel workers. But arrogant Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) doesn’t seem bothered as he brags about their grisly gigs and spends his nights reveling with booze, sex, and careless gunfights.
At first glance, Charlie’s devil-may-care lifestyle might seem delicious to experience vicariously. But Audiard refuses the power fantasy often weaved into the Western genre, and leans into a greasy authenticity (albeit with a side of comical theatricality). Charlie’s hangovers are ferocious, making him a bumbling obstacle to a hasty escape, as well as a vomit-spewing mess who can’t even stay in his saddle. Poor Eli is left to pick up the pieces, even as his brother showers him in insults and stings him with sneers. Theirs is a toxic relationship, gnarled with resentments, regret, and rivalry. In sharp contrast, The Sisters Brothers presents the bond between two more metropolitan men of the West.
Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) is a prospector with no money or friends, but a fastidiously maintained mustached and a curious secret. John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the dapper detective tasked with tracking him down. But as he gets closer to his quarry, Morris discovers their shared love of conversation and intellectual curiosity. Despite himself, a friendship begins to blossom, even as the threat that is the Sisters Brothers draws nearer.
Through these four men, Audiard offers four distinct portraits of American masculinity. Charlie is aggressive, greedy, and impulsive, a dangerous combination that leads him to horrid decisions. Though caring, Eli is his brother’s enabler, tirelessly cleaning up after him, thereby allowing Charlie another opportunity to make a literally bloody mess of things. Morris is both a gunman and an intellectual, who questions his violence and pines for a society that’d allow him to aspire to something more, something better. Warm is not a man of violence, but of innovation and imagination. Instead of a gun, he extends conversation, creativity, and compromise as his way of bending the world to his liking. And when these men meet, we see what Audiard makes of the toxic masculinity of violent domination that Charlie represents and Eli (reluctantly) supports.
Beyond its politics, The Sisters Brothers is a rollicking and pleasingly unpredictable tale, alive with observational humor, dark wit, and a thickly thumping heart that demands empathy even for its gruffest hero. Four stellar performances bolster each beat. With yips of cruel laughter, bursts of puke, and scathing scowls, Phoenix surrenders his ego to play a repulsive and reckless wildman of the West. But it’s Reilly that is the film’s heart, bringing a nuanced tenderness, frustration, and pain with each flexing of his heavy brow. Together, they make for caustic comedy, spiked by personal stakes. But there is little charm between them. These slovenly Sisters Brothers are not meant to be charming. Leave that to the dashing Warm and Morris.
Introduced scribbly a poetic account of his travels, Morris has an instant sophisticated charisma, grounded by a bearded Gyllenhaal’s pensive yet amused expression. With a musical accent, Gyllenhaal paints Morris as a self-styled–albeit pretentious–philosopher who sees himself as pearls before the swine of men like the Sisters. Which makes his first conversation with the enthusiastic and highly intelligent (both intellectually and emotionally) Warm come alive. The spark of Gyllenhaal and Ahmed’s chemistry is as radiant fireworks against a black sky. You feel the rush of that moment of excitement when you’ve at long last found your tribe. Their passionate conversations feel like coming home. Which makes the inevitable arrival of the brothers a stomach-twistingly tense moment with a resolution I won’t dare tip.
All told, theirs is a fascinating story of ambition, aspiration, violence, and brotherhood, but overall masculinity. Through The Sisters Brothers, Audiard poses to his audience the question: What kind of man do you want to be? He challenges our ideal of the cowboy, and in doing so asks us to reconsider what to make of men who feel they seek their dreams through force, bullying, and intimidation. He asks us to consider what enabling such behavior achieves. He journeys us deep into the Wild West, and makes us confront how its legends and lore still influence our modern worldview about what it means to be a man. And along the way, he gives sometimes meandering, but overall richly humane, bitingly funny, and ultimately haunting adventure.
The Sisters Brothers made its North American Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in limited release on September 21st, expanding on September 28th.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com