It's a curious time for Westerns when the genre's most popular entry is Westworld, a postmodern puzzle commenting on how we're all a little sick for revisiting these stories of conquest. While not nearly so Reddit-ready, The Sisters Brothers is also chiefly a reflective Western. It's a half-funny, half-forlorn meditation on family and capitalism in 1851. Hat color has nothing to do with it.
The brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly), are thugs enlisted to track down a prospector they believe has stolen from their employer. Through the movie's first half, the siblings ride (and bicker) south through Oregon to retrieve the man from a different bounty hunter (Jake Gyllenhaal).
These character pairings constitute most of the film's tension and appeal. Gyllenhaal's John Morris is the rare breed of hired gun who uses "whom" correctly and is beginning to question whether his independence is worth the loneliness. The captive Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) is an even greater paradox as a chemist who's earnestly seeking gold so he can christen a new society free from greed. Meanwhile, the Sisters brothers should have quit working together years ago, but blood is thicker than happiness. Charlie is a drunk with a death wish, and the older Eli only violently murders ruffians anymore because he's good at it.
The narrative juxtaposes these two evolving relationships and waits for the moment they collide: something like True Grit meets Midnight Run. Complicating that buddy premise, though, are director Jacques Audiard's artistic flourishes, from several disorienting first-person shots to the implicit symmetry of facial injuries sustained by both men and horses.
Adapted from a novel by Portland writer Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers has uncommon depth but routinely cheapens it with overeager or expository dialogue. Ahmed, Reilly, Gyllenhaal and Phoenix are among the, let's say, 100 most compelling actors in Hollywood today, but all four hit flat notes when required to deliver soliloquies about destiny or ask questions that amount to, "Remember how Pa used to be, brother?" It's Charlie's sheer animus that's the standout character quality. Phoenix hasn't played a proper villain since Gladiator, and his mirthless, juvenile zeal is the most coherent acting in a movie of intelligent yet scattered choices.
Oh, and there's one more commendable performance here: Spain, cast as the role of Oregon. Basque Country has been a favorite backdrop for Westerns since the '50s, and that region shares the distinct Oregon topography of high desert perpetually teasing a transformation into forest. Myrtle Creek and Oregon City both get some love in the script, the latter as the home base of the crime boss who hires the Sisters brothers to kidnap the prospector. (Today, "The Commodore," as he's called, would probably run a charming distillery.)
There are times The Sisters Brothers flexes its genre bona fides, sure. The Colt .45s are ear-shattering. Chins and cheeks wear scruffy beards. And a memorable bit in which Eli Sisters buys his first toothbrush has a wonderful payoff. But no one here feels like a cowboy, per se. To the movie's literary credit and entertainment detriment, these fellas are just early Americans struggling with the same old American mess. They're not enjoying what we might imagine is the ultimate freedom promised in Westerns because they don't feel so free.
SEE IT: The Sisters Brothers is rated R. It's playing at Bridgeport, Clackamas, Division, Fox Tower, Oak Grove.