The Sisters Brothers
The Sisters Brothers is another contemporary Western that seems to exist purely to prove that the genre is still relevant while telling a story about the demise of the West. It all started with Peckinpah before Eastwood kept at it for decades and then others followed suit. It can feel frustratingly limited to only explore the genre this way. At the same time, it allows for some self-reflection on America during periods of change and decline.
You might say that could serve The Sisters Brothers well these days, particularly as a project from a French filmmaker and based on a novel written by a Canadian. What more telling way could there be to view America than an outsider critique in the form of the most American of all movie genres? While there’s some of that here, for the most part it’s just another ode to the West, albeit one with a higher quirk factor than usual.
The premise is pretty classic Western stuff. Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly play the titular Sisters Brothers, a duo of outlaw assassins who live up to their infamous reputations with bloody efficiency. They’re hired by a mysterious Rutger Hauer (is there any other kind?) to murder an equally mysterious businessman played by Riz Ahmed. To make the job easier, a pompous city-boy detective played by Jake Gyllenhaal is even going to track down the quarry for them. The Sisters Brothers just have to do the killing. It’s stock genre material. Where things get interesting is in the telling by co-writer/director Jacques Audiard (the man behind A Prophet, Rust and Bone, and Dheepan making his English language debut) and original novelist Patrick DeWitt.
While Pheonix and Reilly do indeed portray ruthless killers, they come off more as bickering brothers in a bumbling road movie who just happen to murder for a living. Eli (Reilly) is both heartbreakingly kind-hearted and amusingly aloof as the elder brother, entranced by such modern inventions as the toothbrush and forever dreaming of a simpler life as a shopkeep. Charlie (Phoenix) on the other hand is more of an arrogant teen who never grew up, endlessly in search of drunken shenanigans and determined to live up to a lofty reputation he wears as a badge of honor. They make an oddly sweet and lovable pair who never seem dangerous until the six-shooters come out.
Likewise, Gyllenhaal’s dandy detective John Morris never quite conforms to a genre type, and when the nature of Riz Ahmed’s character is revealed, it’s far from what one might expect. Without giving too much away, Ahmed’s character is the heart of this eccentric tale. He represents a new path for America that entrances the quirky stock characters who surround him. The societal ideal is clearly expressed and harshly dashed away through symbolic irony. It still fits within the sardonic outlaw action world of the film, but also lends the film added weight, meaning, and poignancy in unexpected ways.
Performances are excellent across the board (especially from Reilly, who’s also a co-producer and quite correctly saw the project as an ideal vehicle for his unique bag of acting tricks). Audiard gives the film a sense of poetic melancholy behind the camera that serves the oddball adventure well. However, The Sisters Brothers is likely more interesting to discuss than it is satisfying to watch. The screenplay never quite overcomes its novelistic origins, lending the film an episodic structure and awkward pacing that makes it feel longer and less focused than it actually is.
The Sister Brothers is filled with fascinating ideas, evocative images, eccentric characters, and lovable performances that never quite gel together into a satisfying whole. Thankfully, the high notes are strong enough to make the film worth seeking out. It’s just a shame that it never quite comes together. Maybe that will change on subsequent viewings, but at first glance The Sisters Brothers is a strong piece of work that strives for greatness and never quite gets there.