Tonal shifts in 'The Sisters Brothers' seem like the result of indecision

The cast, which includes John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Riz Ahmed, and Jake Gyllenhaal, is strong and demonstrates yet again how good acting can carry audiences through movies that otherwise would not be worth the trip.

Magali Bragard/Annapurna Pictures
Joaquin Phoenix (left) stars as “Charlie Sisters” and John C. Reilly (right) stars as “Eli Sisters” in Jacques Audiard’s THE SISTERS BROTHERS, an Annapurna Pictures release.

Alternately smart-alecky and elegiac, “The Sisters Brothers” is one of those revisionist westerns that oftentimes makes me hanker for the unrevisionist real deal. John C. Reilly is Eli Sisters, who, with his hothead brother Charlie, played by Joaquin Phoenix, are mid-19th-century hired guns in Oregon/California Gold Rush country. Their employer, forbiddingly referred to as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer in a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-him cameo), wants the brothers to hunt down and kill Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a softspoken utopian idealist who has invented a chemical formula for locating gold in riverbeds. In equal pursuit is John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who, like the brothers, decides to team up with Hermann rather than knock him off.

Director Jacques Audiard, who co-wrote the script with Thomas Bidegain based on the novel by Patrick deWitt, can’t decide on what tone to take, so he throws in a bit of everything: funny, loopy, scary, serioso, slapstick, realist, surrealist. In theory, I’m not opposed to such a mélange; life isn’t all one tone, why should a movie be? Some fascinating westerns, such as the underrated “The Missouri Breaks,” have been cinematic crazy quilts. But the tonal shifts in “The Sisters Brothers” seem more like the result of indecision than design. Audiard, in his first American movie, pays court to the absurdist, picaresque hijinks of the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino, but it all seems secondhand. The cast is strong, though, and demonstrates yet again how good acting can carry audiences through movies that otherwise would not be worth the trip. Grade: B- (Rated R for violence including disturbing images, language, and some sexual content.) 

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