Review: "The Sisters Brothers" Has More to Offer Than Just A Clever Title

Samuel Kaufman ’20 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
There’s a magical land you may have heard of – a land where you are free from Michael Bay and special effects. Where “sequel” and “box office hit” are curse words. Where all citizens live in “art houses” and the mayor is Richard Linklater. It’s Indie Movie Land! And it’s in this land – and only in this land – that The Sisters Brothers can be considered a comedy. In the real world, The Sisters Brothers is a gruesome, often harrowing drama, with a few awkward moments that could hypothetically be construed as comedic. This needs to be clarified because all of the marketing materials are pitching the film as a comedy. This is a damn shame, because not only is The Sisters Brothers a drama, but it’s a pretty good one.
The Sisters Brothers is the first English language venture from France’s golden boy, Jacques Audiard. Audiard is a festival powerhouse with a list of Best Director and Best Picture nominations longer than your torso, not to mention his win of the coveted Palme d’Or for his 2015 picture Dheepan. Based on the highly acclaimed novel of the same name from 2011 and combined with a killer cast, it’s no wonder The Sisters Brothers is good.

John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix in The Sisters Brothers. Photo Credit: Annapurna Pictures.
The film follows Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) and his brother Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) as hitmen in the American west, 1851. Get it? They’re brothers, but their last name is Sisters! So clever. Charlie is the self-appointed leader of the two, despite being an emotionally stunted dysfunctional drunk whom Eli is forced to babysit.
For such an accomplished director, it feels almost silly to critique the technical aspects of the film. The cinematography occasionally slips into handheld shakeycam for seemingly no reason, but, other than that, it’s technically seamless. The two leads are doing top notch work here, which is no surprise considering they’re two of the most accomplished actors working today. Also crushing it are Jake Gyllenhaal as the detective that works with the brothers, and relative newcomer Riz Ahmed, who gives a wonderfully understated performance as a well-mannered chemist trying to cash in on the gold rush.
Riz Ahmed and Jake Gyllenhaal in The Sisters Brothers. Photo Credit: Annapurna Pictures.
Thematically, the film is … off kilter. Not bad, just odd. Hard to get a handle on. This brand of “angry men on a mission, damn it” Western has been done before, and knowledge of those films inevitably influences how you will view this one. Of course, the filmmaker also knows that, and subtly subverts plot expectations at every turn, which is difficult to do in this type of slow-burn indie drama (again, not a comedy). Each of these turns is not a huge reveal, just a slight variation on what you thought may happen.
The Sisters Brothers is intermittently violent, heartfelt, and yes, even occasionally funny. There’s nothing about it that is jaw dropping, but it’s a technical success with powerful performances, and a fun twist on the traditional Western. It may not be the must-see hit of the year, but The Sisters Brothers will live happily ever after in Indie Movie Land, where it will continue to advertise itself as a screwball comedy.
Overall Grade: B+
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