On paper, dark cowboy comedy ‘The Sisters Brothers’ sounds like a dream come true. Based on a 2011 novel of the same name and the first English language film by French director Jacques Audiard (‘Rust and Bone’, ‘Dheepan’), ‘The Sisters Brothers’ boasts the stellar lead duo of Joaquin Phoenix (‘You Were Never Really Here’, ‘Her’) and John C. Reilly (known for a number of Will Ferrell team-ups). Not only that, but the supporting cast is rounded out by Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed, teaming up again after 2014's exceptional ‘Nightcrawler’ (one of my favourite, criminally snubbed Jake Gyllenhaal roles to date). With a fantastic cast, great director, and cinematographer Benoît Debie on board (‘Spring Breakers’, ‘Enter the Void’), ‘The Sisters Brothers’ should have been a slam dunk, right? Not quite.
Beginning in Oregon in 1851, Phoenix and Reilly are the titular Sisters brothers, an assassin duo charged with the cross-country task of finding a thief named Hermann Kermit Warm (Ahmed) and extracting a gold mining formula from him through any means necessary. However, the brothers are slow on the pursuit, leaving time for detective John Morris (Gyllenhaal) to track Warm down for the brothers first – and to bond with him. As one pair of men grows closer, the other falls apart.
The chemistry between Phoenix and Reilly, along with that between Gyllenhaal and Ahmed, is palpable and crucial to the success of the film. What is surprising is just how formal the film feels; there may be cowboy hats and saloon shootouts, but ‘The Sisters Brothers’ has more in common with a period drama than the Westerns before it. Instead of the fun, yee-haw cowboy talk one would expect from such a film (especially one starring someone with such great comedic timing as John C. Reilly), the dialogue is poetic and refined, and sounds rather hilarious in Jake Gyllenhaal’s inconsistent British accent. The personality traits one would expect of ‘The Sisters Brothers’ also seem to be assigned to the opposite actor. Phoenix has made a name for himself with emotionally introverted, quiet characters, but here looks to be having the time of his life as the rowdy Charlie, while Reilly is the serious, often exasperated Eli (however he is given a side-splitting scene involving a toothbrush).
Aesthetically, ‘The Sisters Brothers’ is a bit of a mixed bag. The cinematography is pretty stunning, although I’d expect nothing less from Benoît Debie. It still bathes in the warmer tones normally found in Western films, but also features beautiful violet-hued shots of the sky that look almost as if they’re watercolour artworks. The score by Alexandre Desplat is sweet but doesn’t always fit the tone of the film, choosing to add piano in places where strings would work much better. At times it feels too boisterous; at others it feels ripped straight from Carter Burwell’s brooding ‘Twilight’ Saga scores.
'The Sisters Brothers' seems not concerned with the thrill of the bloodshed and body count (of which there is lots in this film), but rather with the ambitions and emotions of its leads.
Where the performances and cinematography soar, the pacing and plot fall as flat as Charlie on a drunken night out. ‘The Sisters Brothers’ seems not concerned with the thrill of the bloodshed and body count (of which there is lots in this film) but rather with the ambitions and emotions of its leads. The plot is lightweight, which could be forgiven if the film used that free time to actually explore the aforementioned themes and push deeper with what it wants to say about them, but it doesn’t do so enough to justify the run time. The two-hour run time feels bloated, as the pacing oscillates between floundering and breakneck speed. The third act feels rushed, a consequence of the slow burn pacing throughout most of the film. There is an unfortunate inconsistency with how the plot is spread out over the run time that if fixed, could have saved the film. Even trimming 10 minutes off the run time could have done wonders.
While far from perfect, ‘The Sisters Brothers’ is a pretty solid English debut from Audiard, and it’s always a pleasure spending time with the film’s four male stars. If only their material had been a bit richer.