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Toronto International Film Festival 2018: The Sisters Brothers – Review

Toronto International Film Festival 2018
Toronto International Film Festival 2018
Toronto International Film Festival 2018


Release Date: 21 September 2018
Director: Jacques Audiard
Writer: Jacques Audiard - Thomas Bidegain - [Based on the book by Patrick DeWitt]
Cast: John C. Reilly - Joaquin Phoenix - Jake Gyllenhaal - Riz Ahmed



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Posted September 16, 2018 by

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Toronto International Film Festival 2018: The Sisters Brothers – Review

The titular brothers of the film are then given a new mission: hunt down and kill Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a thief who has stolen something from the Commodore. Tailing Warm is a private detective, John Morris (Gyllenhaal), who wheedles his way into Warm’s good books and provides the brothers with their quarry’s location in Jacksonville.

Toronto International Film Festival 2018: The Sisters Brothers - Review

Phoenix and Reilly (Courtesy of TIFF)

But, unlike most other Westerns, this film twists the regular narrative. An unfortunate illness prevents the brothers from reaching Jacksonville on time, while the relationship between Warm and Morris takes an unexpected turn. From this point on, the film loses all sense of cohesion and instead concentrates on reaching the goalposts set by the book it is adapted from.

Book to screen adaptations are always challenging, and smart writers and directors know which plotlines to sacrifice to make a better cinematic product. This adaptation is a labour of love for Reilly, and he is undoubtedly the star of the show, but the film itself is little more than a sum of its parts.

The film falters with a middle act that consistently feels like a meandering attempt at building up two characters who the audience already have the measure of. Despite being the main characters, Charlie and Eli aren’t interesting enough. Eli, to some extent has a fascinating moral compass and a naïveté that arrests the audience’s attention, but even that falls away during the second act of the film. Neither character is above the clichéd cowboy tropes we have become accustomed to seeing in cinema – one is a drunken philanderer, the other is a besotted innocent. Watching the two reminded me of Lennie and George from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, except without half as much credibility.

The characters who were really deserving of screen time were Ahmed’s Warm and Gyllenhaal’s Morris. The two actors share the screen for the first time since the spectacular Nightcrawler, and they are enigmatic from the get-go. Despite Gyllenhaal’s laboured accent, he and Ahmed have an easy chemistry that makes their interactions believable. The trouble is, writer-director Audiard never gives the characters enough substance for us to truly understand their motivations. We see what they do, but where is it coming from? These two characters bookend the film’s runtime, but their absence in the middle part drags the film to a stuttering halt. I, personally, would have loved to see more of Warm and Morris’ interaction, because it is refreshing to see two male characters connect so naturally with each other, especially in a genre that is shaped by macho-male role models.

Jake Gyllenhaal as John Morris (Image Credit: Magali Bragard)

Jake Gyllenhaal as John Morris (Image Credit: Magali Bragard)

As attractive as the prospect of a South-Asian-origin actor starring in a Western genre film is, there is little else in the way of diversity in the film. No supporting characters of colour are seen, and the film is devoid of any other women characters of significance barring two. In fact, the most women we see are all courtesans in brothels and it made me feel like the film would have been better off without including women at all. Having said that, Audiard cast larger and curvier actresses for the courtesans (as far as I could tell) which is a refreshing change from the assembly line of supermodel-thin women that every film believes the sex industry is full of.

What starts off as a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid kind of film, devolves into an attempt at character studies and the futility of greed. It isn’t even that the film tries to demonstrate the hardships of life in the Wild West – to paraphrase the words of the Joker in The Dark Knight, it just does things.

I felt hard done by once the credits rolled. Some characters deserved better, others deserved worse, but that is how the story was written and adapted. The denouement chooses to go down the saccharine and convenient route, but do the characters get what they deserve? Does the audience?

The Sisters Brothers was a confusing experience, exacerbated by dialogue that never felt like it was an authentic representation of the era the film was set in. It didn’t help that the IMAX screen where I watched the film during the Toronto International Film Festival seemed to darken the film, making it difficult for me to make out some of the details.

Riz Ahmed as Hermann Kermit Warm (Image Credit: Magali Bragard)

Riz Ahmed as Hermann Kermit Warm (Image Credit: Magali Bragard)

This film should have been a captivating watch, but it see-sawed in its storytelling, and the writing felt sub-par throughout. It was extremely frustrating to watch two great actors playing formulaic characters (Reilly and Phoenix), and two other great actors sidelined in their curtailed roles (Ahmed and Gyllenhaal). Most of the character development was through exposition instead of natural interactions and reactions. I kept trying to find a deeper meaning to all the scenes, only to find that there was none. Perhaps some books are not meant to be adapted, or maybe this was just to big a task for Audiard, who was making his first ever English-language feature film. I believe the struggle to remain faithful to the source material is often the greatest challenge to overcome when adapting a property. Irrespective of the content of the book, this film could have been a coherent narrative about two brothers on disparate moral paths running parallel to two unlikely people forming a close friendship, but it squandered that potential and has unfortunately suffered for it.


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Lestat de Lioncourt
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