Published Sep 11, 2018Geographically, The Sisters Brothers covers a lot of ground. It's the year 1851, and Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) and his wildcard brother Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) are traveling throughout Oregon and California in search of a prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who swindled their mysterious employer, known only as the Commodore. Their hunt takes them from saloons to forests, over mountains and across sprawling desert vistas.
Plot-wise, on the other hand, The Sisters Brothers moves about as slowly as Eli's injured horse. It's a dialogue-driven western, full of long pauses and wry banter. On more than one occasion, characters make fun of each other for using long words like "victimize" and "precipitate." Eli endlessly criticizes Charlie for being a drunkard, while Morris sweet-talks the detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal, gamely doing his best caricature of an Old West voice) into joining his gold panning scheme.
The characters aren't brooding bad-asses like the western stars of yore, but they also aren't funny enough for a wacky modern caper à la O Brother, Where Art Thou?, meaning that the whole thing often ends up caught awkwardly between comedy and classicism.
The dialogue is broken up by the odd gun fight or bust-up, but these rarely amount to all that much. A lot of the action takes place off-camera or in the dark, and then we see the Sisters brothers standing over some cowboy corpses. It's not a thrill-a-minute to say the very least.
The film gets more intriguing in the second half, when director Jacques Audiard (in his English language debut) explores the Sisters' backstory during some touching moments of vulnerability. With this character exposition, their bickering and drunken violence become poignant rather than tiresome. There are also a couple of effective moments of slightly gross shock value — one involving a spider, another an amputation — that provide a welcome contrast to the story's slow pace, and a gold-panning scene is effectively surreal.
Still, for a movie clocking in at a shade over two hours, The Sisters Brothers drags too long before giving a reason to care about the characters' repetitive struggles.