“We’re the Sisters Brothers, and we’re good at what we do,” proclaims Charlie Sisters with a toothy grin. What’s he good at? Killing people and claiming bounties.
Charlie is played by Joaquin Phoenix, an actor who is successfully following in the footsteps of Orson Welles and Marlon Brando: embrace the pounds and mumble the lines — it sounds better that way. John C. Reilly plays brother Eli, a man who pines for a schoolteacher back home and dreams of getting out. Charlie wants no part of the straight life and, honestly, neither does Eli; he’s the responsible one and feels someone ought to say it out loud every now and then.
Set along the West Coast during the height of the Gold Rush, The Sisters Brothers is a revisionist Western for an audience unfamiliar with the genre. Characters either speak in modern vernacular (like Charlie) or affect a long-forgotten cadence that sounds old-timey enough, i.e., John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cohort of the Sisters brothers who tracks Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) across Oregon.
Hermann Kermit Warm, a name too good to not say as much as possible, is a chemist who has stolen information from The Commodore, hence the price on his head. The information in question: a way to mine for gold without having to pan and dig. Hermann Kermit Warm offers this information to Morris, information too good for Morris to turn down and turn Hermann Kermit Warm in. Same for the Sisters brothers, and all four men turn to the prospect of panning. But, as Lao-tzu warned all the way back in 6th century B.C., “There is no greater disaster than greed.”
Based on the book by Patrick DeWitt and directed by Jacques Audiard, with help from co-writer Thomas Bidegain, The Sisters Brothers plays like a movie that yearns to say something without knowing exactly what it would like to say. Episodic in structure, Sisters Brothers settles in once the gold/greed motif becomes apparent, but then abandons it in favor of more bloodshed and more incongruity. Yes, there are moments of lightness and humor, moments of reflection and introspection, but what The Sisters Brothers lacks is the connective tissue to tie them all together into some sort of cinematic cohesion.