The Sisters Brothers hits theaters this weekend, ushering in the very beginning of awards season fair. Once a down-and-out genre, westerns find themselves on the fast track back to popularity with the recent release of such fascinating, genre defining films as Hostiles and Hell or High Water. Despite touting a decidedly versatile and A-list cast, the unconventional western The Sisters Brothers can’t quite bring all the elements to a boil.
The Sisters Brothers follows the consecutive narratives of Eli and Charlie Sisters (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix) as they track a man named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). While he initially worked with the Brothers, Morris ran off with the target of their bounty Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) in hopes of striking it rich with Warm’s recent discovery of an alchemic compound to isolate gold in a river without having to pan. Jacques Audiard directs the film from a script he co-wrote with Thomas Bidegain. The film comes from a book by Patrick DeWitt.
The film’s trailer crafts a light and entertaining tone… This is not the movie playing on screen. The Sisters Brothers marketing team seems desperate to make the movie into a comedy. Unfortunately, the heavy and tonally uneven script from Audiard and Bidegain as well as clunky pacing leads to definite structural issues hampering the lightness they seem determined to create. Audiard uses long, minimally edited takes. While this most certainly can work in some films, this movie is weighed down by the stylistic choice. While The Sisters Brothers clocks in at a hair over two hours, it feels like more like a three hour behemoth
Unfortunately, the pacing issues overshadow the performances which are a clear strength of The Sisters Brothers. While he’s usually a critical darling, Jake Gyllenhaal is particularly good in the movie as the mysterious John Morris. The actor clearly dove deep into this character, crafting personality quirks down to an interesting accent. A mainstay in Hollywood for the last two decades, the A-list performer looses himself inside the entertaining portrayal and shines as a standout of the film. In the hands of the ultra-capable John C. Reilly, Eli Sisters also emerges as the heart of the story. The actor wows in his ability to handle the comedic material which is his typical bread and butter. However, Reilly brings a vulnerability and emotionally to his performance which the film desperately needs.
Another strength of The Sisters Brothers is the gorgeous aesthetic crafted by Auidard’s direction and cinematographer Benoît Debie. The movie features western visuals on par with some of the best recent entries in the genre. As mentioned, westerns are once again popular in Hollywood after years out of the spotlight and the use of landscapes (a halmark of the western genre) is absolutely top notch in this film.
Trigger Warning! The movie features harm to horses on par with some of this year’s more traumatic features. Viewers affected by this are advised to give this one a skip.
Finally, in a climate which is highly tuned in to questions of gender and sexuality, The Sisters Brothers ends up disappointing on most fronts. In a western environment which was settled by people of all types, women are largely absent from the narrative. With one exception, the only women present are prostitutes, and to make matters worse, the narrative doesn’t bother to name them. They are sex objects, plain and simple. A particularly powerful example is a prostitute Eli meets early in the second act. The two share a sweet moment and display some notes chemistry. However, she leaves the movie as fast as she enters and is by and late disposable.
The film’s treatment of Mayfield stands as another topic worthy of discussion. Played by trans-actress Rebecca Root, the character brings amazing potential to the screen. However, Root is completely under-utilized and the movie seems unsure what to do with, and even who Mayfield is. A recent Vanity Fair article by Katey Rich delves into the development, citing an interview with Root who describes playing the character as a cis woman, which is particularly relevant in our present climate. With the right crafting, this could be a star-making, awards caliber role. However, the movie takes a nervous, almost hands-off approach. In the article, Root describes the filmmakers as “sketchy” on the topic of the character, and this certainly comes across and largely wastes an interesting performance from Root.
Unfortunately, there is a disconnect somewhere in the perceptions of The Sisters Brothers. The western is noticeably hampered by structural and tonal issues, which overshadow some definite strengths. Solid performances by likable actors can’t save this indie western being weighed by its script. Check this one out when it’s available to stream.
The Sisters Brothers opens in theaters this weekend.