The Sisters Brothers is the kind of old-fashioned, quintessentially American story they used to call a picaresque: A dusty, squint-eyed Western ramble full of wry cowboy humor and sudden death. It’s also almost impossible to believe it wasn’t made by another set of siblings: the Coen Brothers.
In fact the movie is directed and cowritten by Jacques Audiard, the French auteur behind the exquisitely calibrated 2012 Marion Cotillard vehicle Rust and Bone and stark 2009 prison drama A Prophet. Here, Audiard turns to Canadian-born novelist’s Patrick DeWitt’s source material to tell the episodic story of Charlie and Eli Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly), two bounty hunters–slash–freelance assassins who make their living in circa-1850s Oregon by doing the dirty work of local kingpin the Commodore (Rutger Hauer, seen but not heard).
The boys are on a mission to fetch something the Commodore wants returned to him from Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). But their trek from Oregon City to the heart of the California Gold Rush is more often thwarted by their own misadventures and shenanigans: Charlie is a good-time guy with a hollow leg and a lead trigger finger; Eli is more anxious and sensitive, the big brother always looking out. (He’s also, judging by a certain special lady’s shawl he keeps concealed for nightly sniffing, a hopeless romantic). They needle and bicker like brothers — or like Step Brothers, with Phoenix in spurs standing in for Will Ferrell in a sweater vest.
As the pair travels, stacking up unfortunate incidents with animal predators and more than a few inadvertent human homicides along the way, their colleague John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) is also in hot pursuit of Hermann. He’s a different type, though; a courtly, watchful gentleman who moves cautiously and records everything in his trusty notebook.
The movie has more than a few fun moments. Seeing Reilly’s Eli learn to brush his teeth for the first time is like watching a dog learn to play the cello, and Phoenix, once again playing the wild man with something tender and damaged underneath, is as endearingly weird as ever.
Ahmed plays his Hermann as an intriguing figure of 19th-century enlightenment, a gentle idealist who hopes to fight capitalism by starting a commune in Dallas. Gyllenhaal’s John is fussy and kooky and wears his swirly mustache well, and the great Allison Tolman has a way-too-brief turn as a confused prostitute.
Sisters gets sadder and more eccentric as it goes along, and the ending actually tugs sweetly on a few heart strings, though it’s also hard not to wonder why exactly, with all the Westerns already in the canon, this movie got made — other than to give its crew of excellent actors a chance to put on their boots and ride off, cock-eyed and whimsical, into some kind of sunset. B