The West takes a turn for the grim in the strange, melancholic The Sisters Brothers
Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone) is arguably one of, if not the, most prominent French directors today. He’s a frequent Palme d’Or nominee with a knack for what French cinema loves most: strikingly shot films which explore the depths of their characters’ souls. While his works have ranged widely in genre, all have a predilection for the aforementioned character study, using their plots less to tell an rigidly structured story and more to explore the hearts and souls of the players contained within. It makes sense, then, that Audiard would make his English-language debut with a Western, a genre in which its best films live and die by the development and mystique of their characters. An adaptation of the novel of the same name, The Sisters Brothers too finds its strengths in its protagonists, allowing Audiard to stage an intimate, if often exceedingly grim, exploration of the bond between too very different men against the achingly beautiful backdrop of the American West.
The film follows the titular brothers, guns-for-hire Eli (John. C Reilly, Chicago) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix, The Master), as they attempt to track down Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed, Nightcrawler), a chemist whose formula for a substance which illuminates gold in rivers is desired by the Sisters’ boss. Helping them is John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler), a dandy-like detective tasked with befriending Warm in order to hand him over to the brothers. Over the course of their journey, the division between Eli and Charlie slowly escalates, as the Eli longs for a quiet life far away from the violence of the frontier and the frequently drunk and belligerent Charlie refuses to picture himself doing any other profession.
The relationship between the brothers, and the casting of Reilly and Phoenix in the roles, is easily the draw of the film. The dichotomy of their partnership is doing a lot of the heavy lifting, with the interplay between the soft-spoken and hesitant Eli and the jovially unhinged Charlie giving Audiard plently material to work with. The leading men are certainly up to the task, with Reilly in particular delivering a deeply empathetic performance. Proving yet again that he’s one of the profession’s most underrated actors, Reilly brings a somber humanity to his role, trading in the usual grit and machismo of your standard Western protagonist for a more nuanced, conflicted portrayal of a skilled killer who would rather be doing virtually anything else. Phoenix’s role is a bit more conventional, giving his showier acting chops a chance to shine as he plays the typical drunken and questionably sociopathic part of a man who seems to believe killing is his destiny. The performance isn’t his best, which you can probably blame more on the source material than him, but he’s still endlessly watchable as he sinks his more comically sinister teeth into the role. While individually great, the real joy is in seeing the two play off of each other. Their banter and blind dedication to one another feels as authentic as any on-screen pairing yet seen in the genre.
It’s somewhat of a pity, then, that the comedic elements of the two’s pairing is later jarringly traded for a more brutal and melancholic tone more fit for a Coen Brothers film. While the doom and gloom of that pair’s works, especially their Western-inspired ones, is tinged with a dark humor that feels appropriately applicable to the material, the contrast doesn’t quite land here. Audiard’s classically French sensibilities, which clearly found an outlet in the “two fools” premise of the film, perhaps aren’t perfectly suited for the Western, as the tone shifts so wildly between scenes that it feels less admirably eclectic and more messy than anything else. Unlike the lush cinematography from Benoît Debie (Enter the Void), the film itself struggles to strike a balance between light and darkness, something essential if a so-called dark comedy desires to achieve true greatness. The moments of levity struggle under the weight of the often grotesque outbursts of violence and, in some cases, disturbing body horror. Rather than finding humor in the absurdity of its brutality, it steeps in it to often off-putting effect.
Audiard’s sharp focus on Reilly and Phoenix is clearly both a blessing and a curse. It allows him to draw performances from two infinitely talented actors, but as a result everything around them pales in comparison. Gyllenhaal and Ahmed do their best with the material (though Gyllenhaal’s accent is pretty egregious), but their performances never feel as defined and noteworthy as their counterparts. The action, which comes and goes in fits, ticks off the expected boxes but never feels particularly original or exciting. Some of the visual elements really pop, especially Audiard’s choice to stage shootouts in deep darkness, giving the landscape a chance to illuminate in spurts from the light of the gunfire. But they don’t reach the carnal and hypnotic beauty that has come to define the merits of the contemporary Western, seen in other recent releases in the genre such as Slow West or The Revenant.
The Sisters Brothers feels like a film that should be much better than it actually ends up being. It is worth seeing for Reilly and Phoenix alone, and is full of both comedic and dramatic moments worthy of the pedigree of any film in Audiard’s filmography. However, its biggest flaw is that it’s bursting with ideas of how to make light of the often bumbling intentions behind male ambition and greed, but never quite finds the balance of tone needed to make the critique feel genuine. It’s a film that should be essential. Instead, like Phoenix’s Charlie, it’s content with merely acting as expected.