‘The Sisters Brothers’ saddles up great actors for a new look at the Old West

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Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly in “The Sisters Brothers.” | ANNAPURNA PICTURES

You see, they’re brothers with the last name of “Sisters.” Hence, they’re the Sisters Brothers.

I feel compelled to clarify this at the outset because every single person to whom I’ve mentioned “The Sisters Brothers” prior to its release has responded by saying: Wait, what’s it called?

Maybe that’s a good thing for a movie title — hey, people are talking about it! — and one could imagine the brothers Farrelly or the brothers Coen giving us a film called “The Sisters Brothers,” and let the laughs begin.

Thing is, this isn’t a broad piece of slapstick or a deadpan comedy. Well, there are times when black humor spills out from some violent confrontations gone wrong, and from the dumb-and-dumber exchanges between Sisters brothers. But director Jacques Audiard’s adaptation of a 2011 novel at times has the feel of an elegiac fable, then relies on recurring and not-particularly-funny sight gags, and then spoils what could have been a bittersweet and fitting ending by tacking on a 15-minute epilogue that feels forced and a little ridiculous given the journey we’ve just taken.

The opening burst of gunfire in “The Sisters Brothers” is a unique and stunning sequence that has us wondering if we’re about to experience something special.

As seen from a wide, distant perspective, a lone house stands quiet in the darkest hour of the night. Men approach the house. When gunshots are fired, we see bursts of intense light accompanying the crackling, heart-piercing sounds.

The Sisters brothers have struck again.

John C. Reilly is Eli, the sensitive and sometimes insecure older brother. Joaquin Phoenix is younger brother Charlie, an ornery psycho and hardcore alcoholic who doesn’t care about anything in this world except Eli — and even Eli often feels the sting of Charlie’s nasty temperament.

For many a year, the Sisters brothers have been working as hit men for the Commodore (a character seen only in brief glimpses in a couple of scenes far apart in the film), a powerful boss whose very name strikes fear into all who hear it. Whenever someone falls into disfavor with the Commodore for any reason, Eli and Charlie are dispatched to kill that wretched soul, wherever he may be.

Probably because neither of the Sisters brothers is particularly bright and their investigative skills consist mostly of bullying, beating or shooting the clues out of anyone that might have seen their target, the Commodore depends on the worldly sophisticate of a private detective, one John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), to actually track down the targets. Morris is much too refined a gentleman to actually kill anyone; he merely hangs onto them until the Sisters brothers show up to finish the job.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Morris in Jacques Audiard’s THE SISTERS BROTHERS, an Annapurna Pictures release.<br>Credit : Magali Bragard / Annapurna Pictures

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Morris in Jacques Audiard’s THE SISTERS BROTHERS, an Annapurna Pictures release.
Credit : Magali Bragard / Annapurna Pictures

It’s an intriguing premise, made even more so when Morris captures a wayward scientist named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who supposedly has invented a formula that will make gold embedded in river beds literally glow in the dark — and decides to partner up with Hermann and make a run for it.

As the chase takes us from the gorgeous and sweeping Oregon frontier to the burgeoning boom town of San Francisco, we alternate between the growing bond between Hermann and Morris, and the fumbling but often violent misadventures of Eli and Charlie. While Hermann and Morris dream of joining a utopian community in Dallas, Eli is growing weary of Charlie’s drunken outbursts and also, well, the constant killing, and convinces his brother they should finish this job, then take out the Commodore and finally ride off into the blood-red sunset.

The French director Audiard displays a fresh eye for the Old West — returning to those wide shots from time to time, punctuating those gunfights with bursts of light that pierce the screen for a split-second, moving the story from breathtaking wide open spaces to the hedonistic fever vision of Gold Rush-era San Francisco.


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It’s great to see beloved character John C. Reilly as the co-lead with Phoenix. They’re terrific together, as Reilly’s Eli wrestles with his neuroses in sometimes vulnerable fashion, while Phoenix’s Charlie snorts like a bull, knows exactly why the brothers turned out this way, and doesn’t question it.

Riz Ahmed gives the film’s most interesting performance as the strange and disarmingly soft-spoken Hermann, while Gyllenhaal affects an amusing gentleman’s accent as Morris, who makes that fateful decision to betray the Commodore.

For the first three-quarters of “The Sisters Brothers,” the offbeat adventures and the fine performances are more than enough to carry the day — but then the wheels come off, first with a tragically comic episode that requires a number of characters to behave with blind stupidity, and then, even more troubling, that aforementioned epilogue that rings false and manipulative and just give-me-a-break untrue to everything we’ve seen before.

‘The Sisters Brothers’


Annapurna Pictures presents a film directed by Jacques Audiard and written by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain (based on the novel by Patrick Dewitt). Rated R (for violence including disturbing images, language, and some sexual content). Running time: 121 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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