I’ll be honest, if I’m going to be tempted to watch a western these days, it has to have the promise of something a little bit extra, a little bit different from the norm. I’ve seen enough standard Wild West, prospector journeys at this point, it’s just not a universe that gets me running to the cinema anymore. So, with the promise of dark comedy, an almost Coen brothers type vibe and an interesting title to boot, there was something about The Sisters Brothers that caught my attention.
The film tells the story of the Sisters brothers, pensive, worrisome Eli (John C. Reilly) and impulsive, violent Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) who live and work as hitmen under the thumb of a wealthy man known only as the Commodore. For their latest mission, the brothers are tasked with tracking down Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), a prospector who has developed a special chemical formula for finding gold in rivers. Warm is already being tracked by a private investigator called John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), and as the narrative progresses, the four men come together in ways that their original instructions did not necessarily entail.
In many ways, The Sisters Brothers is unlike anything I have seen before. When you see a poster with two grizzled cowboys front and centre, you come to the party with a few preconceptions, and even with the hint of a Coen brothers style vibe from the trailer, the film still managed to throw me for a bit of a loop. I will say that it feels like it takes an age to really get going, but once the stage has been set for the story, what follows is a surprisingly sensitive and different type of Wild West picture than you might be used to.
Don’t get me wrong, the film has its fair share of shoot outs, bar scenes and familiar western antics, but at the heart of the relationship between the brothers and their new companions is something much more tender and introspective than these types of characters and settings usually afford. You go in expecting one thing, and you get something entirely more subtle, more nuanced and more empathetic than the genre norm. I found myself really pleasantly surprised by not the only the dark humour, but also the real heart and delicacy that shines through amidst the obvious Wild West chaos. There are moments within the narrative, in both dialogue between the brothers and dialogue between Warm and Morris, that really evoke something like Of Mice And Men. There is a melancholy that hangs over the plot from beginning to end that contrasts really interestingly with some of the more visceral, shoot ’em up action that takes place.
It is a shame that The Sisters Brothers takes such a long time to get in to its stride, because the first third of the movie is so slow and ponderous that it runs the risk of having you check out before the film ventures in to more absorbing territory. If you have the patience to stay engaged, though, you are rewarded with what I believe is a really special second half.
The film features four central performances, some really good, some okay and some kind of bad. Holding up his end of the bargain the best by far is John C. Reilly as Eli Sisters. I had concerns that I wouldn’t buy Reilly as a Wild West hitman beforehand, but upon realising that this isn’t the usual kind of Wild West hitman film, it become perfect casting. Reilly has a sweet, melancholy, worried disposition that breaks the heart of the audience almost immediately. He feel almost like a man outside of his time, too sensitive for this Wild West life, but spurred on by his protective love for his brother Charlie, the much wilder of the two. As Charlie, Joaquin Phoenix never really has to get out of second gear, but he is enjoyable to watch nonetheless. Some of the real magic is the smaller scale conversations between the two actors, they have compelling chemistry in a ‘George and Lennie’ type mould like a mentioned above, and the longer the film goes on, the more you come to like them.
Riz Ahmed has very little to do as gold prospector Hermann Warm apart from put across a likeable, genuine air, and he does that very well. Jake Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, commits a fair few acting sins in his portrayal of private investigator John Morris. To say that Gyllenhaal overacts the part would be an understatement. He adopts this sort of faux English accent that feels utterly contrived, and the force that you can feel his performance, almost as if you can hear the cogs turning, is very much at odds with the more natural feel of the rest of the cast. I don’t know what’s happened here, I usually really like Jake Gyllenhaal. I guess you can’t win them all!
Overall, The Sister Brothers is a weird and kind of wonderful little movie that is probably going to come and go with little fanfare, but is worth at least one watch for its refreshing take on the sensibilities of character types in this period. Westerns are something that can feel very old hat these days, and although The Sisters Brothers doesn’t really come to life until about half way, there is definitely enough refreshing and different content in those final acts to put it on your to watch list.