It’s hard to think of a film more difficult to pin down than The Sisters Brothers. Is it a blackhearted buddy comedy? A political allegory in the guise of a road movie? A prestige arthouse Western? Yes to all of the above, but having sat with the film for a few weeks, I’m no closer to arriving at a clear encapsulation of the film than I was when I first walked out of the theater. And yet, as difficult as The Sisters Brothers can be to categorize, it overcomes its thematic and tonal dissonance to achieve something startlingly unique, even when it occasionally fails to strike an effective balance between its disparate elements.
Director Jacques Audiard, working from an adaptation of Patrick DeWitt’s 2011 novel penned by Audiard and co-screenwriter Thomas Bidegain, makes his English-language debut with a movie that defies easy contextualization even within its genre. John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix star as Eli and Charlie Sisters, a pair of hitmen contracted by the mysterious Commodore (Rutger Hauer) to carry out his dirty work. In this instance, that means tracking down Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) — a chemist who’s devised a method for isolating gold in stream beds — torturing him for the secret and then disposing of him. Why is Ahmed’s character tangentially named after the set designer for Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? This is one of the many mysteries of the film — it may not sound like the setup for a comedy, but at times The Sisters Brothers can be bleakly and bitingly funny in the most unexpected places.
Much of that black humor is derived from the relationship between kindly but misguided Eli and his psychotic lush of a younger brother Charlie, two men sharing a fractured moral compass damaged early in life by their abusive father. Audiard and Bidegain contrast this toxic co-dependency with the more collegial relationship that forms between Ahmed’s Hermann and Jake Gyllenhaal’s John Morris, an effete scout also in the Commodore’s employ. As the four men’s paths finally intersect, we get to the heart of what The Sisters Brothers is really reaching for — this is a character study, yes, but it’s really an examination of the way interpersonal bonds can dictate character in the first place.
Narrative doesn’t necessarily get short shrift in favor of character development here, but it toes awfully close to that line. Audiard and Bidegain present the essential elements of a story, but they are clearly more interested in pathos than in plot. And that sense of emotional identification bleeds into the film’s visual style, with moments of gratuitous gore butting up against awe-inspiring vistas to create a powerful psychological juxtaposition. Though their story structure may be as off-beat as their protagonists, Audiard and Bidegan have captured something strangely evocative with their cinematic approach.
For Audiard to choose a revisionist Western as his English-language debut is somewhat audacious given the lack of demand for that particular subgenre, but as was the case with Les Cowboys, Bidegain’s 2016 reimagining of The Searchers, it proves to be a form that lends itself readily to explorations of thwarted masculinity. The Sisters Brothers is a deceptively challenging film and, unfortunately, one that seems unlikely to find a mainstream audience. It’s a picture with a strong central cast in top form, a nihilistic sense of humor and a stubborn disregard for easy assessment. It’s the kind of slow-burn head-scratcher that should find a second life on streaming services even if it’s dead on arrival to multiplex screens. And while it may never see the financial success it deserves, it still warrants a watch.