It would be easy to categorize The Sisters Brothers as a traditional Western, but probably more accurate to describe it as a darkly comic character-driven adventure set amid the violence of the Old West.
That distinction is clearer the deeper you get into the English-language debut of venerable French filmmaker Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) — a stylish examination of cutthroat loyalty, rugged masculinity, and the pursuit of the American dream.
The story begins along the Oregon Trail in 1851, where outlaw siblings Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) have been hired by a crime boss (Rutger Hauer) to track down and assassinate shady prospector Herman Warm (Riz Ahmed) during the height of the California Gold Rush.
Various personal crises arise before they locate their target, who is under the protection of a loquacious sheriff (Jake Gyllenhaal). For a while, the two pairs are followed in parallel storylines before Warm makes a potentially lucrative offer to his pursuers that causes them to question their loyalty to their job and one another.
Deliberately paced but rewarding patience, the film is frequently unsettling beneath its offbeat rhythm on the surface, either due to the impulsiveness of the characters of the harshness of the frontier setting or both.
Phoenix and Reilly build a convincing rapport through understated performances that convey a sense of melancholy despair while making their characters mildly endearing. After all, despite their quirks and lighthearted banter — including sequences involving Eli’s first experiences using a toothbrush and indoor plumbing — they are ruthless killers.
The meandering screenplay by Audiard and frequent collaborator Thomas Bidegain, adapted from a novel by Canadian author Patrick DeWitt, suffers from abrupt shifts in tone and uneven narrative momentum, as if it sometimes loses its way along the trail.
Still, the meticulously detailed film mostly sidesteps genre clichés as it focuses on moral complexities and character dynamics rather than merely on gunfights, boozing and womanizing, or surviving the elements (although it features all of those).
The Sisters Brothers is a simultaneously amusing and harrowing glimpse into life on the prairie that’s ultimately, to paraphrase Emerson, less concerned about the destination than the journey.