Sometimes the movies I read about in online cinephile forums never reach Vermont's multiplexes, or they might surface for a week and disappear. Such is the case of The Sisters Brothers, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Jake Gyllenhaal, which won director Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone) a Silver Lion at the 2018 Venice Film Festival.
Come next week, this oddball western probably won't be in town, and it's no mystery why. Despite opening with a burst of violence, the low-key film lags along for its first hour, entertaining us with deadpan humor without gaining much momentum.
And yet, by the halfway point, something unusual happened: The movie grew on me. Withholding the basics we expect from a western — poetic violence, heroic or sinister tableaux of men on horseback — started to seem like the whole point.
Phoenix and John C. Reilly play the title characters, brothers Charlie and Eli Sisters, who make their living as assassins in 1851 Oregon. The former is a bit of a sociopath, especially when he drinks; the latter is an easygoing fellow — or as easygoing as a ruthless killer can be — just trying to keep things together.
The brothers' employer, the Commodore, has sent them to kill a chemist named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) and steal his secret formula, which could revolutionize the process of gold panning. Meanwhile, John Morris (Gyllenhaal), the moody, Thoreau-quoting guy assigned to keep a watch on Warm, starts bonding with his target. (Gyllenhaal's bizarre accent seems meant to suggest patrician New England, but it's tough to tell.)
The story takes us from the mountainscapes of the Northwest to (all too briefly) the humming, semi-lawless hive of Gold Rush San Francisco. As Warm and Morris become allies, and the narrative moves back and forth between the journeys of the two duos, Audiard seems to draw us inexorably toward a showdown — between violence and book learning, perhaps, or old West and new.
But don't expect anything like that. The New York Times review of Patrick deWitt's source novel noted its plethora of "anticlimaxes and dead ends." In this sense, Audiard has made a faithful adaptation: Every time something really exciting seems about to happen, it doesn't — or it does, but mostly off-screen.
Yet, as The Sisters Brothers winds to its end, things do "change," as Eli points out. At the start of the movie, Charlie is the sort of avatar of violence whom westerns — yes, even revisionist westerns — tend to glamorize. By the end, he's simply pathetic. The bumbling, wistful everyman Eli emerges as the true hero, with Reilly's performance cementing his rep as the MVP of most movies in which he appears.
A western in which hardened killers pause to shoot the breeze about trivia — horses, town names, shawls with sentimental value — draws inevitable comparisons to Quentin Tarantino. Instead of satisfying the audience's blood lust, however, Audiard gives us shots of sunlight on breeze-ruffled curtains. (Seriously, there are a lot of those shots.) There's something very Waiting for Godot about the movie's refusal to deliver on its implicit promises; even the circular banter and blunt sight gags have a Samuel Beckett feel.
At moments this strange alchemy seems perfectly realized, and at other moments The Sisters Brothers plays like a "Deadwood" spin-off in which the colorful supporting characters don't entirely earn their own showcase. This is the kind of movie that sinks in theaters but just might develop a cult on streaming, where its purposely small payoffs aren't dwarfed by the big screen.