The Sisters Brothers – VIFF 2018 Review

French filmmaker Jacques Audiard (2009’s A Prophet, 2015’s Dheepan) may not seem the obvious choice to make the big screen adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s beloved, prize-winning 2011 historical novel about a pair bickering siblings who earn a living as hitmen in the Wild West of the 1850’s.

In fact, reading deWitt’s “The Sisters Brothers”, with it’s picaresque pearl-on-a-string narrative, colorful and quirky lowlifes and lawmen, it’s easy to imagine a very Coen brothers provision of dark Americana. That said though, perhaps the outsider perspective of Audiard, is just what this revisionist Western needs to redress some familiar genre tropes into some spiffy new duds.

Audiard, it’s worth mentioning, is no stranger to adapting adored and difficult literary works. His nuanced 2012 hit Rust and Bone expertly entwined two alternately salacious and severe short stories by Craig Davidson with heart-stirring results, and so he digs in deep to “The Sisters Brothers”, and I’m happy to report that lovers of the book will be pleased with this faithful and fascinating reimagining.

Right off the bat the film is buoyed by some of the year’s very best casting. John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix are ideal as Eli and Charlie Sisters, hitmen hired by the Commodore (Rutger Hauer) to murder to murder prospector Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) who may just be in cahoots with a crooked detective named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Tracking their quarry from Oregon City to San Francisco circa 1850, the period details are perfect, and some of deWitt’s most delightful details, such as Eli bonding with Hermann over their mutual appreciation of brushing their teeth with newly acquired toothbrushes to the former’s unbridled affections for his ill-fated horse, Tub, elevate this Western substantially.

The Sisters Brothers is further reinforced by the expert lensing of Benoît Debie, whose CV includes such visually ravishing films as Enter the Void (2009), Spring Breakers (2012), and Climax (2018).

Audiard and Debie are a perfect pairing, not unlike Reilly with Phoenix, and such brotherly esprit de corps gives The Sisters Brothers a seeable splendour and a muscular poetry that muzzles the American West in ways we’ve not fully embraced since the genre’s heyday. Worthy of the Silver Lion and the standing-o that followed its Venice premiere and the rapturous applause it received here in Vancouver, The Sisters Brothers ranks with the year’s finest. Don’t miss it.

Taste of Cinema rating 4 stars (out of 5)

Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.