John C. Reilly has his best role in decades in this eccentric, tragic, comic western.
A landscape of darkness, the distance muzzle flashes of a shootout. Violence, brutality. The Sisters Brothers opens like many westerns before it, but then it spirals into oddball directions as two lowly, dangerous, comic relief henchmen take center stage and throw the rest of the genre into sharp relief.
John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix star as Eli and Charlie Sisters, two hired guns working for an unseen commodore, who sends them on a quest spanning the American west in 1851. Their boss wants them to track down a chemist, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who may have developed a chemical that could change the mining industry forever.
It’s a simple mission, on the surface. Another of the commodore’s agents, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), has tracked the scientist down. All the Sisters Brothers need to do is catch up, torture the formula out of him, and go home. But if you want to make god laugh, as the old story goes, just make a plan; the Sisters Brothers wind up sidetracked by spiders, thunderstorms, bears, treachery, greed, and the ingrained dysfunctions in their own relationship.
The story of The Sisters Brothers isn’t about what these brothers are doing. Wherever they go, whatever task lies before them, they get it done. They may not be smart but nobody survives a shootout like they can, and at this point in history that’s enough to make them minor legends. Director and co-writer Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) is more interested in painting a vast picture of the American frontier and the western genre that it spawned, with vignettes that are funny, tragic and speak to the intense loneliness of men living on the outskirts of society, by the gun.
It’s easy to see why this material would appeal to John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix. The majority of the film is just the two of them, shooting the breeze, joking and kvetching. and exploring their affection for one another in strange moments. In the middle of the night, around a campfire, Charlie begins to whimper softly. Eli crawls over to comfort his brother, only to discover that Charlie’s just yanking his chain. Tenderness is hilarious. To these guys, genuine love is expressed by laying your life on the line for your brother time and time again.
Joaquin Phoenix is very funny as Charlie Sisters, the drunk and impulsive member of the family, but John C. Reilly is on another level. The actor has always been a rich and complex performer, but it’s been an incredibly long time since he’s been given a role that lives up to his talent. As the older, more responsible Sisters brother, Reilly gives his best performance in decades, delicately balancing the hitman’s emotional weaknesses with his unexpected strengths, his deadliness with his ennui.
It’s a performance that’s so specific and impressive you’ll probably forgive the rest of the film for being relatively shapeless. The Sisters Brothers is a collection of vignettes, in which the brothers wander from town to town, seeking their quarry and wondering if there’s anything else worth wondering about. They’re just intelligent enough to be good at their jobs, but not nearly intelligent enough to improve their circumstances. And they can’t seem to stay out of trouble no matter what they do.
Their unique state of mind appears to be the purpose of The Sisters Brothers. It’s a film with sparks of action, sharp character work and funny anecdotes aplenty, but sharing in the aimless life of nice guys who do unforgivable things is a strange experience that perhaps only could have taken place in this environment. One wonders whatever happened to people like the Sisters Brothers in the century and a half that followed, even though we’re probably better off for leaving them in the dust.