Joaquin Phoenix Talks 'The Sisters Brothers,' Trauma, Empathy & Masculinity [Interview]

In Jacques Audiard‘s “The Sisters Brothers,” a dark, picaresque comedic Western that slowly reveals itself to be something much more poignant, Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly play Charlie and Eli Sisters, respectively. And while they are infamous assassins and stone cold killers—and the plot centers on a journey of chasing down a gold prospector in 1850s Oregon— in many ways, Audiard’s “The Sisters Brothers” is about their awakening to empathy, a concept they struggle to understand, even as it dawns on them. As men in the cruel, merciless American West of the 1800s, the brothers—who suffer a love/hate relationship with one another—live day by day, hunt down who they’re tasked to kill, drink and repeat this cycle of violence over and over again.

READ MORE: ‘The Sisters Brothers’: Jacques Audiard Crafts A Dark, Comedic, Surprisingly Moving Western [Review]

But as Reilly’s Eli, the more sensitive brother rouses to the idea of another life without so much bloodshed, and as they meet a pair of more civilized, optimistic men (Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed) upon their travels, they begin to find the glimmer of humanity inside them (which also terrifies Charlie). This is, of course, the emotional texture of the film. “The Sisters Brothers” on its surface is a quixotic, dark Western with action, shoot-em-ups, and comedy, but it’s examination of man, America, and the way it can possibly change is extremely relevant as much as it’s presented extremely subtly.

READ MORE: 55 Must-See Films: The 2018 Fall Movie Preview

It’s an entertaining riot for sure, but it’s also a movie about trauma, surviving trauma and the bonds of brotherhood through it all. It’s affecting, moving layers and the complicated relationship between Eli and Charlie—not to mention the fantastic, layered and emotional acting between Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly—that really elevate the film into something much more special. One of the best films of the year so far (at least in my mind).

READ MORE: First ‘The Sisters Brothers’ Clip Showcases Chemistry Between Joaquin Phoenix & John C. Reilly

It’s also the expressive texture that I found myself talking to Joaquin Phoenix most in a recent interview about the film; almost exclusively. Before I knew it, time was up. But for a guy sometimes presented as difficult, cranky, shy or wanting to be anywhere other than in a press situation, Phoenix was affable, thoughtful and easygoing (at least, for a second anyhow, until I brought up, “I’m Still Here“).

*A tiny-ish spoiler* that comes up at the beginning of the film that we need here for context. The audience learns that Charlie, Phoenix’s character, killed their father when they were children. It’s, in many ways, a tiny blip in the film, but to the actor, this informs everything.

This movie is funny and entertaining, but I’m really drawn to the very subtle undercurrent of emotion that slowly coils up around you and takes hold so affectingly in the last act. The brothers’ relationship is so complex. Is that what sort of drew you to the material?
Yeah, that one element was the really interesting dynamic because so much of it is—there’s a love between, but much of it is fueled by resentment and guilt. There’s this event: killing your father at such a young age and [my character] being the youngest. That changed the course of their lives.

There’s something really powerful about that. It’s strange. On one level, there’s this resentment that I had to do this event that traumatized [my character]— although Charlie wouldn’t have the language to understand that concept, right? But on the other hand, it’s the thing that has given Charlie power and power over his brother Eli in a way he doesn’t fully understand. But he doesn’t want to give that up either and the reason that he’s so cruel to Eli. Charlie always wants Eli to feel stupid and less than, and that allows him to stay in a position of power. And sadly, that’s mostly because Charlie doesn’t want him to leave.

Charlie needs their dynamic to stay exactly how it is and that there’s something really interesting about that for me as an actor And I think for Riley, his character has the guilt of being the older brother, but not the protector that should have killed the father himself. That’s thrown their relationship off balance. He’s always trying to make up for it. And I think that my character uses that against him. I thought their relationship was really complicated.

What I love about all that complexity, is that it’s all right there on the screen between them, but it’s never ever discussed in those terms. I suppose men in that era—or even now—would never discuss it anyhow, but you feel it. Like every little emotional bit of what you just described which is what I love about Jacques [Audiard] as a filmmaker. Was he a big draw too?
[Sheepish, with a kid-like look of guilt on his face] I’ll be honest I wasn’t really familiar with his stuff. I heard about the script, people were talking about it, and I just waited to see if it would come my way and it did. But I didn’t watch any of his movies. And If I haven’t seen the person’s movies [when I’m offered one of their projects] I prefer just to meet them and talk to them. And sometimes you do know the films, it all depends.

Maybe it’s in the book, but as far as I remember, it’s unspoken why your character kills his dad?
Oh, really? Well, their father was beating the mother. I thought that that was in the movie, but maybe I can’t remember. It’s just the book perhaps.

Well, I guess it’s another one of the unspoken things. You can glean they were put through something horrible just by seeing who they are as people.
Yeah, then it’s just in the book, that’s what it’s about.