From director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone), The Sisters Brothers – set in 1851, and taking viewers from Oregon, down through California – stars John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as brothers, and hitmen for hire, Eli and Charlie Sisters. In the employ of a wealthy Commodore (Rutger Hauer), the brothers are tasked with the hunting down of a man named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed). Unbeknownst to them, the Commodore has increased his chances of a successful outcome, by also hiring a private detective, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). While Morris gets to Warm first, the two eventually team up, once Morris learns – as the Commodore already knew – that Warm has created a chemical solution that can be poured into water to ensure any deposits of gold will glow – allowing prospectors simply to shovel them out.
As the hunt progresses, we see the day-to-day stresses and misfortunes of the life the brothers have chosen to lead, along with the wide range of different circumstances in which they routinely find themselves: lodgings being anything from the luxury of a bath and running water, to sleeping outside – with the attendant risks from bears, spiders, etc. Through this, we see the fault lines in their relationship. Eli wants to retire from this life, take the considerable money they’ve made, and start up a store of some description; by contrast, Charlie takes the life they lead as unquestioned, seeing it as who they are, and what they do.
That would be the first point to make about the casting and characterisation in The Sisters Brothers: the two leads really do play as distinctive, yet related. Reilly and Phoenix clearly don’t look alike, but the film has gone neither for an odd couple vibe nor for a sense of the two as interchangeable parts of the whole. Charlie and Eli are distinctive personalities, with differing outlooks on life. Charlie is a little more hedonistic, while Eli is more interested in the mundane yet respectable, such as his wonder at a new powder for cleaning teeth. For this, the film portrays well two brothers who know each other better than anyone else alive. We feel their care for each other, yet a vague sense of complacency – certainly from Charlie – that their companionship is guaranteed, and everlasting.
That sense of an era coming to an end for the brothers gives the film a vibe that, had it had any other driving plot than the Gold Rush, would have made it better suited to later – the death of the Old West. Much like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, or even Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, The Sisters Brothers lives under the shadow of a way of life coming to an end. In this case, however, that ending is personal to the brothers, rather than the end of a way of life for society more generally.
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The film carries an almost episodic structure. It’s not as off-beat as a Coen Brothers’ film – with none of the quirkiness in character work that we’d find there, nor is it as self-conscious as a Tarantino movie, but there are little touches of both here. This is complemented by a reasonably brisk pace – with little bloat in the story, despite such a structure leading to the ability to mix and match vignettes, as needed – and a pretty, if unshowy set of visuals. The film is beautiful, without ever giving the impression it’s trying too hard on that front.
If the film has a flaw, it’s that it’s entirely unclear what, if any, point it has. It moves along well, with engaging leading characters (all four of them, for that matter), and a reasonably interesting plot, that mixes in some humour very nicely (though calling this a black comedy – as many have – overstates it somewhat). The plot can be summed up, however, as two brothers are hired to find a guy, it takes them a while, but they do. When they do… well, we won’t spoil that, but it isn’t a clear find and dispatch situation. There isn’t a great deal here beyond that, with performances and chemistry between two brothers, so different, yet so similar, being the main factors driving the film on. It’s not an action film – with a lack of really impressive set pieces; it’s not quite a comedy – it’s amusing in places, and this was probably the full extent of the filmmakers’ ambitions on that front; and it’s not truly a family drama – with the whole retirement thing only being a big issue in one scene, and then at the epilogue.
From this it is clear that The Sisters Brothers is a difficult film to market. Of course, John C. Reilly appears in so much, that there’s no pressing need, in theory, to make this the one you have to see. Made for $38 million, this film took a mere $10.4 million at the US box office, when it was released there in the autumn. This may be the reason UK audiences have had to wait until the spring of 2019 for this release, and find it dumped between a major Disney release and the latest DC film. Though many terrific films have died a death financially, it is hard to escape the feeling that The Sisters Brothers suffered from not having a consistent, strong pitch to sell to the world. It’s entertaining, well-acted, pretty to look at, nice sounding, and reasonably varied in visuals – given the setting. Without being able to tell you, however, whether it is, at its heart, a comedy or a drama, a tale of family dynamics or fraternal daring in a dangerous environment, it’s possible to recommend this film only in the weakest, most general terms. It’s likeable enough, and will probably entertain most who like the leads, or the western genre, in general. It’s a decent film – often very good, in fact, but The Sisters Brothers will likely be soon forgotten by general audiences – and that’s if they ever get to see it.