“The Sister Brothers” is frontier road-trip that is continually reinventing itself, improvising at every twist and turn, from graphic body humor to witty, and ultimately moving brotherhood. It’s a film that evolves from its Wicked-style affairs to an action-filled and bloody shootout of wit and guts. It is absurdly revising the stereotypical shoot em’ up effects of a genre built upon gunfire and surface level emotions. Becoming both nostalgically familiar and inescapably nuanced, at least it's that way for the second half of its 120-minute runtime.
The backdrop is the Gold Rush, with that of Eli (John C. Riley) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), the sister brothers, as our central pair to follow. They’ve been tasked with the job of tailing and killing and even torturing a chemist named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) who has discovered a way to allow gold to appear in water glaringly. One of their illustrious and intellectual partners, Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) is tracking this man and soon discovers this trick. Perceiving it as a way out to escape the thumb of ‘the Commodore,’ a feared crime boss who enacts a policy of reaping what you sow, so when these men barrel out of their deals to him, they find themselves on the receiving end of a bounty.
It’s a tale that doesn’t begin to grow on you until the latter half when we actually start to peel away the skin of these characters. Grasping the roots behind them, in what turns into a somewhat emotionally conflicting tale. The first half is quite the opposite, a lot of it is shrouded with meaningless set-up and road-trip backgrounds. The film builds itself as a traveling journey between these brothers, they bicker and argue and interact with nature in formidable fashions. They’re no slouches when it comes to surviving. The film opens with the fireworks of a shootout. The sparks of gunfire lighting the midnight sky.
We soon learn they’re a pair of cold-blooded hit-men, without much thought of the consequences of their actions, or the bodies that pile up behind them. They are cowboys in the truest sense of the word, antiquated and shortsighted. The film becomes that of a battle of brothers in a way, the older one looking for a way out for his brother, the other to covered in the muck of bloodshed to see anything ahead.
Charlie is the younger brother, one with a darker past than expected, a history that isn’t brought to fruition until the latter half of the film where it begins to pick up. Nonetheless, he’s a natural born killer in a way, one who is unable to escape his sinful past and actions that have caused so many bodies to pile up along the way. His older brother, Eli, is more soulful and gentle-natured.
Joaquin Phoenix is exceptional in this role, as is John C. Reily. Both of whom fabricate some surreal chemistry that mounts to a duo of performances that is some of the year’s best. Their pair of dancing partners in Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed are fantastic as well, reuniting from their time on “Nightcrawler.”
These two pairs become paralleling stories. Two men are feeling as if they’ve known each other for longer than they actually have, forging a path for themselves that is struck with gold. The other, a pair of brothers who have, literally, known each other for the entirety of their lives, attempting to discover a way out of their experiences of mayhem.
The biggest problem with this entire period-piece of familial ties though is that the first half amounts to nothing more than a rehashing of a dialogue-heavy plot without meaning. It’s meandering, wallowing, and rambling to its ultimate point of story; it never begins to ignite itself, to allow it's the meat of the story to take hold of the screen until the inevitable finale. Perhaps it's the transitioning from the slow-burn, humanistic character studies to one of American cinema’s most infamous genres, the western, that French director Jacques Audiard struggled with; unable to capture the crux of the story being told until the bitter-sweet end.
The film is painted beautifully though, Audiard captures the old-west with vignette brilliancy and a level of rawness to its landscape as well, but that same level of tactile, of tangibility is lost upon the story for so long that you begin to feel as if your wandering in circles. When the bitter-sweet duality and the guilt-ridden relationship of brother take hold, both the performances and the story follow the grand, scope of the cinematic language laid forth.
“The Sister Brothers” is a movie without bite for most of its runtime, but when it does eventually begin to reach out and grab you and force your attention; “The Sister Brothers” becomes a quite moving film for both brothers and non-sibling audience members alike, but that long wait for relation makes it feel hollow and empty. Like the old west, it took quite a while for the Cowboys to discover their morality; when they did though, it was a beautiful thing to see.