The Sisters Brothers is an immensely sensitive, peculiar experiment of a western; while the story of two brothers on the search of a rogue inventor seems fit for the swashbuckling, guns blazing western you might expect, the film is a slow, curious take on two brothers and their volatile, yet functional relationship. The film has its exciting moments and twists, but it’s much more thoughtful than one might expect, and become a much more rewarding experience because of that.
Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) are hitman brothers on the search for Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist with a formula that finds gold who has taken up companionship with the detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). The relationship between the brothers is what makes the film work; while it’s easy to boil the characters down to the rash, hard drinking younger brother Charlie and the more sensitive, pragmatic older brother Eli, these are characters whose every actions and behaviors have consequences onscreen. The film builds to emotional climaxes that pit the warring ideologies against each other, and it’s exciting to see how this unstable dynamic works.
It goes without saying that John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix are brilliant onscreen together. Reilly’s performance is one of great sadness, as his softer, more normal qualities are brought out as he deals with the reality of his lifestyle and his wild younger brother. Phoenix plays a character that could’ve easily been nothing but someone for Reilly to banter with, but Phoenix develops a charismatic and unpredictable character who’s very nature is to run from the impending doom that he seemingly always escapes from. Riz Ahmed and Jake Gyllenhaal do brilliant work too; their chemistry stands out as a highlight, as their instant bond and shared desire for a better life gives the film an almost spiritual, existential quality.
There’s not a traditional narrative structure to The Sisters Brothers, as each scene leads into another conversation, shootout, or confrontation, and while some may criticize the film’s “stream of consciousness” format, I can’t say I was ever bored or distracted from such a nuanced piece of cinema. While the initial decision to focus on such small details and so little plot gave made it feel quirky, The Sisters Brothers unravels into many moments of heartbreak and genuine happiness, spanning across the emotional spectrum as our characters travel across the west. This is a marvelous film. Grade: A-