One of the most underrated actors of his generation, John C. Reilly has long been a very powerful character actor when given the opportunity. However, for many in my generation, Reilly has become known for his comedic turns in Talladega Nights and Step Brothers. However, the classically trained actor has long been a standout character actor in some of the best films of the past three decades. In Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Chicago, The Hours, Wreck-It Ralph, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and more, he’s consistently been a solid piece of fun and great films. That makes the dismissal of his career as a comedic actor all the more frustrating. However, his 2018 should help reverse that sentiment. Out the gate, his performance in The Sisters Brothers will likely go down as one of my very favorite turns by any actor or actress in 2018.
The Sisters Brothers follows Eli (Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoneix) as the titular outlaws. The two brothers have long been mercenaries and bounty hunters working for a man named The Commodore (Rutger Hauer). The two are sent after a prospector Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who is eluding the brothers with the help of their associate John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). The trek across Oregon and California in the 1850’s, at the height of the Gold Rush, combines violence, comedy and deeply personal introspection for a winning combination.
The real engine of the film is Reilly. While the plot slows at times and director Jacques Audiard lets the film wander, Reilly stitches together the moments through his deeply personal journey. Eli wants out of the bounty hunter life, but cannot do so without leaving his brother. Yet Eli’s life has never really been his own, with his drive to protect and save his brother outweighing his ability to be happy on his own. Reilly communicates this struggle beautifully, holding onto moment after moment and turning subtext into something beautiful. His emotion spills out of every corner of the film and he uses his odd kind of charm to hook you to his journey. Everything about Reilly is wonderful here, and he delivers one of the greatest performances in his career as a result.
The rest of the cast does interesting work as well. Gyllenhaal’s odd Morris will surely be divisive. His accent can border on silly on occasion, but given the absurdity of the violence around him, it actually fits. He is a man trying to become civilized in a world that is not, creating an interesting dichotomy in the process. His story drastically changes direction thanks to Ahmed as Warm, who utilizes his own charisma to perfection. He’s a far more magnetic performer than some give him credit for, and his eloquence as Warm helps to bring the audience into his ideas. They seem like nonsense, but he still finds a way to deliver something special.
Meanwhile, Phoenix disappears into the zany, comedic, and dangerous Charlie. He seems to have a clear idea of what he wants in life, but his drinking and killing make you question his motives. He’s an empty man, one simply filling each moment with the pleasures in front of him. As usual, Phoenix delivers small ticks in his voice, mannerisms, and darkly comedic style to make this character a full-fledged lunatic. Yet in the old west, he feels perfectly at home.
The direction from Audiard lifts the screenplay (Audiard & Thomas Bidegain) to fulfill its potential. Audiard should receive credit for the work the cast does here, because they absolutely milk the trick screenplay to its highest potential. The screenplay features Coen-esque dark comedy in bits throughout, crafting a story that feels like Miller’s Crossing in the Old West. The director begins what feels like standard direction, and slowly infuses style into small scenes. Tonal balance is a problem at times, as the film features very strong comedic moments, but also intense violence. Yet the work feels organic, and the ride comes off as complete. “The Sisters Brothers” might be a tad long due to Audiard’s willingness to wallow in the moments of the film, but it does work to craft a traditional slow burn Western.
Two other aspects that really stood out were the cinematography and the brilliant score. The film composes many amazing shots throughout the runtime, and DP Benoît Debie brings out the grittiness of the American West wonderfully. However, while the sprawling vistas and gorgeous sunsets seem to be captured on film regularly, the intimacy of Debie’s camera helps sell moment after moment. A lot of the emotion of the film relies on the shots Debie assembles, and the partnership between Debie, Audiard, and Reilly helps sell this aspect of the film. Finally, the score for The Sisters Brothers transcends the long history of great western scores. Last year’s Oscar winner, Alexandre Desplat returns with an equally great composition this time. Desplat might be the best active composer in the world, and this score adds another notch in his belt. While it will likely not win the Oscar this year, his work here is certainly worthy of such accolades.
Overall, The Sisters Brothers will appeal to fans of the traditional western story. The darkly comedic screenplay will drive some away, especially when the violence gets going. Still, Reilly’s performance is a triumph. After years watching him work, I can think of few projects that better utilize his strengths and talents than this one. Reilly is awards-worthy and delivers one of the very best performances of the year.