The Sisters Brothers opens with a shoot-out on a rural ranch, filmed in pitch black. The only light comes from the gunpowder that bursts into flame when triggers are pulled, and eventually a blazing barn. A whinnying horse runs from the flames. “How many did we kill, seven?” a voice asks. Meet Charlie and Eli Sisters, a pair of sibling assassins. They’re no-nonsense yet accident-prone, unrehearsed but reliable, bickering and loyal: cruel, calculating killers with an air of childlike innocence. Together, they bumble their way through jobs with surprising efficiency. But while Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) has no qualms with his career, Eli (John C Reilly) wants out, and hopes this job, would you believe it, will be his last.
Directed by Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) and based on a Booker-shortlisted novel by Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers is constantly balancing the tropes of the Western against its desire to subvert them. This is a one-last-hurrah cowboy film with a warm sense of humour and a number of unexpected quirks, including two delightful performances from Riz Ahmed and Jake Gyllenhaal. Ahmed is disarmingly gentle as the wide-eyed target Hermann Warm, who hopes to found his own utopian society. He successfully melts the heart of Gyllenhaal’s playfully pompous John Morris, who, at first working with the Sisters brothers to track him down, converts to Warm’s idealistic cause.
A cat-and-mouse thriller soon dissolves into something more unusual, and the film is at its most engaging when all four characters are forced together: a charismatic quartet with polarised world views that begin to rub off on one other. It doesn’t reinvent the genre, but just like Hermann Warm The Sisters Brothers wins you over with its infectious charm.
This article appears in the 03 Apr 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers