With a title like The Sisters Brothers, one would be forgiven for assuming that Jacques Audiard‘s off-centred western would be something of a comedy. Whilst there’s moments of black humour peppered throughout Audiard’s English-language debut – which makes its inclusion in this year’s Alliance Francaise French Film Festival all the more curious – this is a particularly dark journey for the titular duo (played by Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly), with the Audiard-penned script (co-written with Thomas Bidegain) never entirely settling on a singular genre to peg the film to.
Settling in on Oregon, circa 1851, the film wastes little time in introducing us to Eli and Charlie Sisters (Reilly and Phoenix, respectively), brothers and paid assassins under the employ of The Commodore (Rutger Hauer in the epitome of a cameo). Though the younger of the two, Charlie has all the brash and cocksureness of a born leader – he’s also much more comfortable wielding a weapon – whilst Eli has adopted the parental role in dealing with Charlie’s constant drunkenness and unruly behaviour.
The opening moments of the film allude to a lighter voyage for the audience as we are informed of the dynamic between Eli and Charlie, and when it’s discussed that the two are under orders from The Commodore to rendezvous with a detective, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is working under his own instructions to trail a chemist known as Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), The Sisters Brothers appears to be setting itself up for a tale of modest intrigue.
It’s not entirely surprising when the pretences these men meet under prove to be false, and it’s an appreciated detour from following Eli and Charlie on their trails when their eyes are widened to consider a future beyond The Commodore’s employ; Eli has contemplated a life outside of the killing business though, much to Charlie’s disdain.
However, just as we’re happy to see The Sisters Brothers break from its western conventionalities, Audiard never entirely knows what to commit to when changing his focus. The movie is essentially a four-man act between the loose-cannon that is Phoenix, the kindly Reilly, the gentlemanly Gyllenhaal, and the wise Ahmed, and indeed their strength as performers and the wonderful dynamics of their characters keeps us paying relative attention, but the film’s inconsistency in juggling tone proves to be its own worst enemy.
Then there’s the film’s ending which is particularly muted – especially in comparison to some of the violent carnage that has preceded – and hopes to play into the audience’s emotions, but unfortunately comes off as an inorganic additive rather than a story progression of natural abilities.
A feature that’s at once frustrating and fascinating, The Sisters Brothers is unlike any western that’s graced the screen, and it’s there in its own ambition to play against character that the film appears as both a failure and success.
TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Sisters Brothers is screening as part of the 30th annual Alliance Francaise French Film Festival. For film details, session times and city dates, click here.