The Sisters Brothers

★ ★ ★ ☆

Based on a historical novel by Canadian-born author Patrick deWitt “The Sisters Brothers” is a buddy Western that, for better and for worse, doesn’t rely on the clichés associated with buddy flicks or Westerns.

Set in 1851 Oregon, “The Sisters Brothers” tells parallel stories. First we meet the brothers, Eli (Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix). The pair are bounty hunters and all-round thugs for hire, currently working for a mysterious Oregon City mob boss known only as the Commodore (Rutger Hauer in a wordless cameo). “You do realize our father was stark raving mad and his foul blood runs in us,” Charlie says to his big bro. “Its why were good at what we do.” Violent and ruthless, wherever they go a heap of sorrow is left behind.

Their latest job is to meet detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is to hand off Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist-turned-gold-prospector who has developed a formula to make searching for gold a scientific rather than physical procedure. It’s a chemical mixture that, when poured in the river, lights up the gold. All you have to do is reach in and pick it up

It’s a get rich quick scheme and the Commodore desperately wants to get his hands on it. Warm’s ultimate goal is much more pure. He has visions of using the gold money to create a new society in Texas that favours nonviolence, education and true democracy. Morris the hunter becomes the hunted when Warm appeals to his better nature. Moved by warm’s plea—“The Sisters will cut off my fingers, burn my feet,” he says—Morris becomes a business partner. The big question? What will happen if and when the Sister Brothers catch up with them?

The four leads play tough guys and cowboys who spend as much time discussing their feelings as they do firing their guns. The brothers have daddy issues—he was a violent alcoholic—while Morris hated his father for any number of sins, both personal and professional.

The brothers bicker constantly. Eli, a great lummox who, at first glance seems ill suited for the job at hand and yet never hesitates to shoot an adversary in the head, is sensitive and wants to settle down. Charlie, on the other hand, is a wild card, with a hair trigger and a more limited idea as to what the future may or may not bring.

The conversations range from heartfelt to funny and are the engine that propels the action. There are shoot-outs and horses and all the other tropes of the genre but this story is actually about the guys, not their actions. A John Wayne oater this ain’t. Instead it is a movie that explores the masculine bond that lies at the heart of so may westerns but is never fully explored.

“The Sisters Brothers” is a story about family, purpose and male bonding made human by a sensitive performance from Reilly (who also produced) and his chemistry with Phoenix. It’s a buddy flick and a Western but it’s also more than the sum of its parts.

3 ½ STARS