The Sisters Brothers (aka Les frères Sisters) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
The Sisters Brothers occupy an alluring type of ambling Western. The story is somewhat aloof, the adventure never quite a clear path and the nature of journeying across the West is treated with almost silent awe of grit. Much like traversing the dusty trails in search of fortune, these films are also risk and may mosey around for hours without finding much. Such a picture seems as though it’s looking for nuggets of gold and mostly turns up with golden pebbles.
It’s the 1850s and brothers Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) are working as hired guns. They make a few mistakes here and there but mostly get the job done. They’re at least reliable enough for wealthy clients to take them seriously when it comes to assassinations. Their latest mission has them chasing after two men, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who are searching for gold. Both pairs of men have conflicting views of the world and will a somewhat common bond, subtly by their ideals and more lethal by their mistakes.
Though these men have a certain set of skills for what they do, they find themselves in states of mistakes that’ll cost them. Their journey is not without peril, where bear attacks and spider bites become serious dangers that can result in death. They also can’t hold their liquor very well, which makes travel difficult when Charlie finds himself constantly drowning in the bottle. Morris believes he has just the skills in chemistry to find gold in an original way but it’s clear that his mind is more focused on idealism than how toxic the material he’s using maybe. They make mistakes and tough calls need to be made about their futures.
With all of this going on, one may ask if this Western is trying to be a drama or a comedy. The film itself is on a hunt for a genre, setting out into the Western setting and see what they can find. Is a drunk Charlie hilarious? Maybe. Is the tragic loss of a best friend so ill he commits to blowing his brains out be considered drama? Sure. How effective any of this is in its stumbling towards emotion is certainly questionable with many stops and starts along the way.
What I can say for certain is that Reilly and Phoenix give great performances even if it isn’t very clear where they’re headed in such a picture. I enjoyed watching Reilly’s innocent and curious interest in the invention of toothpaste, never treating it as an easy bit for a gag but a thoughtful choice in improving his life. Phoenix always seems to be the perfect actor for playing troubled characters and there’s a certain grace to how he approaches a flawed man with warmth and earnest. Their screen presence and chemistry demand a better script!
The ambling of The Sisters Brothers is not a total waste. There are a few scenes that work exceptionally well at showcasing the hardship of the era and the ideals of the misfits. But nothing ever feels as though it builds to something bigger past the mere quirks of its setting and characters. It’s a mild sort of mix of strong actors that do their best with material which feels like more bones than meat.