The Sisters Brothers takes place at an odd junction in America’s history. It’s 1851, and the American West as we know it is still embryonic. The characters in this film must navigate a social topography where boundless opportunity and unchecked mayhem flow in the same brick-brown river. Murder comes easily; alliances are cheap. Where most Westerns would opt for the more familiar post-bellum setting–replete with the grubby ingenuity of the Gilded Age–The Sisters Brothers wins a few points by depicting a time when the rules were still being written on the fly. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t know when to curtail its eccentricities or sand off its rough edges. This is a strange, cerebral Western—easy to appreciate, difficult to enjoy.
The story centers on Eli and Charlie Sisters (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix, respectively), bickering brothers who hunt down thieves and deadbeats for an Oregon tycoon. Eli is pensive and sensitive, ever-pining for an unseen and possibly unrequited love. Snide and boozy, Charlie is his sanguine, self-destructive counterpart. The men are dispatched to track an enterprising chemist (Riz Ahmed, everywhere these days), who has found an easy path to hidden gold. The duo must also contend with a colleague/adversary (Jake Gyllenhaal—I spent most his screen time trying to place that accent) who may have an agenda of his own.
The Sisters Brothers almost functions as a kind of anti-Western; it does an end run around a number of clichés: Eli and Charlie are verbose, philosophical characters who engage in oblique banter about their troubled past and the rocky, co-dependent relationship they’ve built. There aren’t any true heroes and villains here; the characters played by Ahmed and Gyllenhaal are greedy but not necessarily evil. They speak intelligently and make thoughtful decisions. This is a film that takes painstaking time to study its characters; it paints slowly on a broad canvas, and some viewers may find this deliberate pace excruciatingly languid.
That being said, The Sisters Brothers is still a movie with many things to admire: Alexander Desplat—maybe the most interesting composer working in films right now—eschews the familiar Western score (booming brass and twangy slide guitar) in favor of gorgeous, stripped-down piano cues. And when Benoît Debie’s cinematography goes wide for the Pyrenees (Northern Spain stands in for the High Sierras), it makes this a movie that should be appreciated on the big screen. Reilly and Phoenix are ceaselessly watchable—has John C. Reilly ever given a bad performance? The Sisters Brothers is a film with good moments, but it’s also a dour, overlong, and frustrating mood piece that often forgets to be entertaining.