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The Sisters Brothers (Blu-ray Review)

Here’s one of the latest post-modern, offbeat westerns that have come about in recent years. While the revisionist western serves as an interesting way to deconstruct the black and white ethics defined in classic westerns, The Sisters Brothers joins films like Damsel, Slow West or the Coen Brothers’ True Grit in terms of westerns that are aware of their perplexing nature. While still acknowledging the darker qualities of living in a time where outlaws could roam free, it is not above films like these to feature so much humor that reflects both the nature of that present era and where things will go. The Sisters Brothers goes one step further by taking on a level of self-reflection, which serves well for the terrific characters featured.

Film:

Unfolding like a surreal dream, the story is set in the California Gold Rush era and follows two outlaw assassins who happen to be brothers. Eli and Charlies Sisters (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix) are introduced as skilled gunfighters who tend to bicker. Eli is the kinder of the two, as his affable and curious nature makes him a warmer soul, despite a lack of mercy when it comes to shootouts. Charlie is the opposite, a short-tempered drunk, who’s never above fighting his way out of a situation.

Both actors are terrific here. Reilly purchased the rights to the original novel by Patrick de Witt, and one can see why he’d be attracted to the material. It plays to all his strengths as both a comedic and dramatic performer. Phoenix gets to have more fun in a role that’s detached from the intense nature of his more recent dramatic films. The way Charlie can rile up his brother, let alone address the scenarios the Sisters brothers get themselves into allows for deflation of tension in just the right way, as the stakes are not as much concerned with life or death as it is with introspection.

Helping this thought is the primary drive of the plot, which focuses on the Sisters brothers’ attempts to find John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). Warm is a chemist who has concocted a formula to simplify the process of panning for gold. Morris is a detective hired to bring Warm to the Sisters brothers’, who have been assigned to learn the formula and kill him. With the time spent with these two characters, the film goes further down the road of what it is to live in this time.

While the Sisters brothers are outlaws, Morris sees himself as a gentleman, and Warm has plenty of concern with the lack of peace in the world that favors violence and greed instead. Ahmed brings a unique presence to the picture, as he stands as the least flashy of the cast, but a knowledgeable fellow that doesn’t belong in such a setting. Gyllenhaal takes on an upper-class accent and brings a level of ego to his role that suits the part. When all the characters eventually converge, it makes for a fine dynamic, as each role feels challenged by the others.

This the first English-language film from acclaimed director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone), but he’s seemingly made no compromises regarding his offbeat approach to this film (the benefit of working with Annapurna Pictures). While adopting the look of a western via production design and the level of grit that comes from seeing dusty characters riding horseback, there’s plenty to admire in all the other qualities. Cinematographer Benoit Debie does tremendous work in the choices of how to light this film. As mentioned, there’s a dreamy quality to a lot of what we see, and the use of focus, let alone the nature of certain scenes, helps the film push towards something different. Along with a beautiful score by Alexandre Desplat, there’s a lot to admire about this whole presentation.

Additionally, The Sisters Brothers understands how to layer in authenticity. This film gets that the west was a wild and brutal time for people. It adds to both the humor and the drama. A running joke involving a toothbrush is well-served by the fact that all the characters actually have dirt on their teeth (compared to the many period films where actors’ clean, white teeth prevail). Meanwhile, gunfights are brutal and matter-of-fact. There’s no reason to stretch out the action, as inaccurate as some may be, because the film portrays the Sisters brothers as men who know how to handle themselves.

With all that comes from the Sisters’ efforts to complete their mission, however, we get to see them learn who they want to be. Elements of irony, sorrow, and redemption, among other ideas, all crop up as the film carries on, and it’s completely appropriate. Reilly, in particular, is the standout of the cast, as we see so many different emotions flow through him. At the same time, Phoenix becomes more complex as the film pushes forward. It’s the sort of story that chooses to explain the bare minimum of context but is so visually immersive that viewers can piece together what’s going on while relaxing in the comfort of these characters.

The Sisters Brothers is the sort of film that knows how to find beauty in its bleakness. Some intense situations are dealt with in a manner that subverts expectations. The whole production reflects a filmmaker who challenged himself when it came to the story that was brought to him, while not shying away from keeping in step with what makes his directorial voice stand out. There’s good humor to be found, as well as dramatic reflection. The film is violent, but also gentle in where things go with the relationships we see. It’s an odd beast of a movie and a western that strikes its own chord.

 

Video:

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1

Clarity/Detail: There is a lot to admire in the look of The Sisters Brothers. For a bleak film, Audard and his filmmaking team found a great amount of beauty in their location choices to best capture the spirit of the west. That shines on Blu-ray, as we see plenty of clarity in the landscapes found for this film, best putting forth the great level of detail in the touches that make this a unique western.

Depth: Depth of field is captured well here, with a level of dimensionality that comes across effectively. Characters on horseback moving back and forth in the frame allows for a great way to view this aspect.

Black Levels: Shadow and black levels are terrific throughout. The way this film uses silhouette and darkness to emphasize specific sequences comes across great here.

Color Reproduction: Colors look great. Costume design stands out especially, given how the brothers choose to dress. There’s a lot to like in how this world looks when it comes to color.

Flesh Tones: Character detail is excellent. Facial textures are handled in all the right ways.

Noise/Artifacts: Clean.

 

Audio:

Audio Format(s): English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, English Descriptive Audio 5.1

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French

Dynamics: This is a strong enough lossless track that works to encompass the scope of this western. With small amounts of action and a fine score, there’s enough to get across in the way this mix incorporates so much for the sake of this little movie.

Low-Frequency Extension: Gun fights and brothers bickering, there’s some room for the LFE channel to have its moments.

Surround Sound Presentation: The film is front and center-focused, but the rear channels do an excellent job of keeping ambient sounds present as well. The balance does its job to have you invested in the different western towns and other fun settings full of different kinds of audio.

Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone is heard loud and clear.

 

Extras:

I didn’t expect too much in the way of extras, but it would have been great to get a commentary with Audard and at least some of this cast. That said, some standard featurettes are entertaining enough.

Features Include:

  • Striking Gold: Making A Modern-Day Western (HD, 15:11) – It’s great to hear Reilly go over his passion for getting this film made, along with interviews with other members of the cast and crew here.
  • Q&A Panel (HD, 13:40) – Audard, Screenwriter Thomas Bidegan, and Jake Gyllenhaal speak on the film’s behalf, following a screening.
  • Promotional Featurettes (HD)
    • Brothers Forever (HD, 1:11) – A brief take on the relationship between Reilly and Phoenix.
    • Wanted Dead or Alive (HD, 0:45) – A very brief look at the nature of being an outlaw.
  • Gallery (HD)
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD)
  • DVD Copy of the Film
  • Digital HD Copy of the Film

 

Summary:

While it didn’t make much of a splash beyond the festival circuit, I was quite fond of The Sisters Brothers. It has something of a large scale, despite being a little arthouse western. It’s offbeat, yet has enough going on that would make it work for a mainstream audience. Fortunately, this Blu-ray does the film justice by way of its presentation. Extras are a little lacking, but there’s more than enough here to recommend for at least a viewing.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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