It’s tempting to call The Sisters Brothers an anti-Western, but not because it avoids classic Western tropes: it actually embraces them. The tone and tenor of that embrace, however, are slower and more precise than the usual genre fare, making it stand out in ways that could excite or irritate audiences.
Eli and Charlie (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix, respectively) are the titular Sisters brothers, two outlaws who work for a rich man called The Commodore. On a mission to retrieve a gold-finding formula from a chemist named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), several factors—including greed, the desire to survive, and a slight bit of decency—cause the boys to question their choices and consider a slightly different path. Oh, and Jake Gyllenhaal is also there.
This is the first English language film from writer-director Jacques Audiard, the auteur behind A Prophet and Rust and Bone, and it feels like a distant spiritual sibling to Kelly Reichardt’s fantastic Meek’s Cutoff. Meaning, a Western by someone who appreciates the genre but doesn’t alter their own style to meet its needs. Audiard doesn’t embrace the idea of hero versus villain, or the pride and bravado that often come with cowboy shootouts. A lot of the gun battles seem notably predetermined; in fact, several near the end are breezed by or outright ignored, their details being less relevant than the Sisyphean struggle the brothers are engaged in.
Audiard’s characters aren’t necessarily unique in the world of Westerns, but their decisions do feel earned and based on their surroundings, not some internal code or external expectation. The Sisters brothers are two men who fell into a dirty line of work and found that it suited them, operating in a gray area that may not be groundbreaking but does give its two leads lots of room to perform.
Unsurprisingly, what makes the movie special is the work of those leads. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before from Phoenix: a charming hothead with a flair for the dramatic, wonderfully done as usual. But Reilly hasn’t taken on a role like this in forever; after years of being Dr. Steve Brule and costarring in Will Ferrell comedies, it was fair to wonder if we’d buy him as a serious man, yet alone a tough guy. Which makes his weary-yet-determined performance as Charlie’s de facto caretaker that much more impressive. “Killer who can’t quite admit he likes the killing” is a Western trope if there ever was one, but to see someone like Reilly create his own version is a sight to behold. Given that the film was a bomb, there likely aren’t any major awards in his future. But there should be.
As a Western semi-fan who isn’t wedded to the genre’s traditional storytelling format, I’m all for more films like The Sisters Brothers. Yet I can also see why they end up being well-received but poorly viewed; they’re sold as time-honored tales when they’re not, or the comedic elements get top billing (look at John C. Reilly eatin’ spiders!). Even I walked out unsure how to feel; was there something missing? Or did it just so quietly and casually subvert expectations that it didn’t come across as a “full” movie with a purpose? It’s worth seeing to find out; regardless of the final outcome, you won’t regret going on the journey.