The Sisters Brothers occupies its own strange, somber place in the Western genre. The movie is neither classic nor revisionist. It’s occasionally darkly funny, but never exactly comic. It’s its own thing, which in itself is a gift.
Directed by Jacques Audiard and based on a novel by Patrick DeWitt, the film follows Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) and his younger brother Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), guns for hire in 1850s Oregon sent after a chemist (Riz Ahmed) turned prospector. A detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) also gets involved, and soon all four men have to choose where they’ll fall on the stark divide that the harshness of the American West presents: are you going to live off your fellow man, or are you going to live alongside him?
Reilly and Phoenix are good together, even if they don’t really conjure up that sort of ineffable magic, the inexplicable chemistry, that comes from an inspired pairing. It might be a matter of character development, as Charlie is pretty much your standard, violent psychopath. (Phoenix sells the scary hell out of it.) Reilly’s Eli is a bit more nuanced, and a perfect fit for the actor—this is another big, burly guy who can’t quite live up to the expectations of his imposing figure. Eli is a killer, but he also has a certain softness, a sense of goodness, a yearning for a more civilized life (we see him a few times experimenting with a toothbrush). He wants to live alongside others, but he also feels tied to a brother who thinks life is cheap—unless there is a dollar to be made by taking it away.
Audiard always puts the brutality of this time and place at the forefront. In most scenes, someone or some animal is dealing with a gruesome sickness or wound. Indeed, the grisly after-effects of violence get more attention than the act itself—although the opening, a long shot capturing bursts of gunfire being exchanged in the black night, is a thing of terrifying beauty. After winding this way and that, often unexpectedly, The Sisters Brothers ends on a grace note, a simulated single take that plays like a montage of domesticity, set to a particularly delicate section of Alexandre Desplat’s score. This is a curious movie of both fury and quiet feeling, a take on the genre that’s occasionally explosive, but mostly, surprisingly pensive.