THE SISTER BROTHERS was a film I had to sit and ponder for a while. The only thing I knew going into it was that was a Canadian Western. I didn’t know what to think about that. I didn’t think it was a detail that had to be stated. How could that differentiate IT from just about any other Western? As far as Western tropes go I knew we could throw out the loner aspect; after all, there are brothers here. There is the sense of a changing world for our protagonists. They are literally heading to a rapidly developing West. So why was there so much to think about?
I liked the movie but didn’t love it. I loved parts of it and I had to appreciate a movie that challenged convention enough that I really had to settle in and gather how I felt about it. Not so much in a “did I like it or not” sense (that was readily apparent), more in the “What did I just watch?” sense. So much so that I have re-written my thoughts on what this film was trying to get at more than should have ever been necessary. If all artistic endeavors are searching for a certain emotional or intellectual truth, which truth was this film searching for and did it succeed? It was a Western in all the traditional narrative senses yet managed to subvert it in all the details.
To begin with THE SISTER BROTHERS has a few stories here with multiple endings that do not quite fit together, but basically the film is about Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix); two brothers that are on a mission to kill a chemist that has discovered a special chemical compound that makes gold glow in stream; making prospecting the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. The chemist, Hermann Kermit Warm (a perfectly cast Riz Ahmed), is on the run from and later partnered with John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), another bounty hunter, once tasked with killing the self-proclaimed alchemist himself. Once Hermann and John agree to join forces to protect the formula of the chemical compound and head to the booming Gold Rush Era California to search for their own golden nuggets, the task of killing Hermann falls to the Sisters brothers.
The film does manage to succeed on several levels. The first being that each of the actors is in top form. You can truly tell that they all love their characters and are having a blast playing them. Both Joaquin Phoenix and Jake Gyllenhaal are at times completely unrecognizable; lost in their roles as outlaws. One enjoying their life as a notorious murdering gun for hire and the other looking to get settled into a newly discovered post-outlaw existence. Riz Ahmed is exceptional as the both socially and mortally vulnerable chemist looking to create his own Utopia in Dallas. With all of these great performances, it is a fantastic bit of writing that allows John C. Reilly to stand out as the also murderous, but unsatisfied, brother Charlie Sisters looking to walk away from the criminal life for a life of quiet substance. A goal so romantic and contradictory in its conceit that only the best of thespians could balance the material with any believability and Reilly pulls it off perfectly; providing a backbone to the ambiguous moral compass.
I was really looking forward to the score for this film. Western scores and cinema have been the bedrock of great cinema since sound was first put to image and I was curious how this would be orchestrated. As it turns out, they went in a very subtle, to the point of unconventional, path with music by Alexandre Desplate that somehow works with the pacing and palette of the film. It is definitely Western-inspired, but with a sometimes beautiful ghostly quality that I have not heard in a western before. Think Black and White Western Detective Noir and you might get an idea of what I mean (let your mind think on that one). It’s as experimental a Western soundtrack as I have heard since Neil Young’s work on Jim Jarmusch’s DEAD MAN. Although unexpected, it does seem to work with the visuals that at times pay tribute to the silent westerns of decades past. I could listen to it for days sans film. I seriously want this soundtrack but it doesn't seem to have been given a formal release. A missed opportunity.
So with all of this going for it, why the hesitation to declare this a modern-day classic? The film has, at a minimum, two too many endings which reflect the films oftentimes search to find it’s direction. Is it about family? Is it a chase film? Is it a buddy picture? Hell, is it even truly a western? Some films are able to pull off several of these but wind all the separate threads into one cohesive yarn. This film fails to ever do that. It is content to let the different threads blow in the wind, which I believe may have unfortunately been the intent. It never worked for me. There is no point that you ever feel really fulfilled. Three partial endings don’t make it into a whole. If the script had been given just a little more care or if the director had recognized these shortcomings from the beginning we may have ourselves a cult classic at the very least. Instead, we have all of these quality ingredients that never quite live up to the aspirations of the recipe.
If you are a fan of westerns I would suggest seeing the film for its unique take on the genre. With tempered expectations, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. Otherwise, you might just find yourself empty at the end.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS is in select theaters now.