[Screen It]


(2018) (John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix) (R)

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Drama: Two brotherly hitmen of the 1850s set out to find a chemist and extract his formula -- for finding gold easier than any way in the past -- from him, regardless of whatever force that might take.
It's the 1850s and brothers Eli Sisters (JOHN C. REILLY) and Charlie Sisters (JOAQUIN PHOENIX) are hitmen who work for a criminal figure known as The Commodore. After yet another successful job that ends in bloodshed, they're assigned their next task.

And that's to find a chemist, Hermann Kermit Warm (RIZ AHMED), and extract a formula from him -- for finding gold easier than any way in the past -- regardless of whatever force that might take. With word that another of The Commodore's men, John Morris (JAKE GYLLENHAAL), has tracked down Hermann, the brothers set out to get the job done.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
In the usually easier said than done category, as a screenwriter you want your characters to be familiar yet distinctive or original in some way. That's not only in order to make them stand out and be memorable, but also draw the attention of people in power who can get your movie made. And attract performers who will want to inhabit them in front of the camera and, eventually, their viewing audience.

Such work often starts with building a back-story for characters that sometimes directly makes it into the finished product but more often than not indirectly shows up in the form of the results of the past events forming such creations into who they are. Having not read Patrick deWitt's 2011 historical novel "The Sisters Brothers" that was based on the California gold rush of the mid-nineteenth century, I can't say what sort of said material was present in that.

But if I had been tasked with penning the screenplay about two brothers who grew up to be hitmen working for a crime figure, I would have started with their last name. Having grown up with Judy as mine, I can attest to the wisecracks, put-downs, and bullying that came along with that territory, so I can only imagine what two brothers who were known as sisters must have gone through back then. Perhaps enough pent-up rage to start killing and discover that they enjoyed doing so.

I have no idea if writer/director Jacques Audiard and co-writer Thomas Bidegain even considered that in their screenplay adaptation of deWitt's work, but there's another past event that's occasionally referenced as a partial or perhaps even full catalyst for where we are as their story begins. We immediately see -- or, more accurately, hear -- what's going to set them apart from most other hitmen we've seen on the screen. And that's a distinctive repartee that likely wasn't terribly common for men in their line of work and in their particular era.

Granted, we have seen that before -- and done better -- in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" where John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson played such men -- albeit in a contemporary setting -- and dispensed witty if profane remarks as easily as they shot bullets, belying one's usual association with that line of work.

Audiard and Bidegain don't quite have Tarantino's Midas touch when it comes to dialogue (but then again, who does). But what's present works well enough to make the sibling brother characters (played by John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix) compelling and engaging, and anything above and beyond that might have actually served as a detriment in the form of being too much of a distraction.

The basic driving story is fairly straightforward and simple. The brothers -- one a bit more reserved than the other -- work for a crime boss known as The Commodore -- and are good at what they do. Their latest assignment is to find and kill a chemist (Riz Ahmed) who's supposedly wronged their boss. What they don't know is that man has developed a new if potentially quite caustic way of finding gold in a much easier and quicker fashion than ever before. That ends up enticing enough to another of The Commodore's men (played by the always great Jake Gyllenhaal) who's a tracker and holder but not a killer.

Literally and figuratively seeing gold in them thar far-off hills of San Fran, John decides he should team up with the man rather than turn him over to the brothers, all of which, of course, means a confrontation is about to go down. As are some more unexpected turns as things play out fairly briskly over the flick's two-hour runtime.

The chemistry between Reilly and Phoenix as the siblings and Gyllenhaal and Ahmed as the unlikely duo is good, and the Tarantino-esque dialogue lifts the overall effort above the usual genre trappings and expectations. While it's certainly not for all audiences, I can say I was engaged from start to finish thanks to the unique drawings and subsequent performances of the main characters. "The Sisters Brothers" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 31, 2018 / Posted September 28, 2018

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