In The Sisters Brothers, starring Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly, there are no good guys. Our protagonists are quite possibly the farthest we get from sympathetic leads, two hired guns who often get wrapped up in conflict and have to shoot their way out. Charlie Sisters, the younger of the two, is impulsive and violent, and uses his alcoholism as an excuse for his rash behavior to his brother. Eli, the older, struggles to clean up after his brothers' reckless attitude while also harboring a past love and the shadow of the two's murderous father.
Riz Ahmed and Jake Gyllenhaal also star, as a fugitive chemist and the detective after him, respectively, who quickly move past their adversity to join forces in their search for riches. Warren (Ahmed) has developed a formula to quickly locate gold in a river, though it comes with a cost, and the Sisters Brothers are hired to track them down and bring back the formula to their mysterious patron, The Commodore.
Stylistically, The Sisters Bros. is muddy, sleepy, and feels as though seen through a pinhole, at least for the first half, while Eli and Charlie bicker and stumble their way across the Western frontier. It's lack of a distinctive soundtrack is made up for by the steady pace of the plot, and each scene is less begun and ended and more entered and exited as soon as it reaches a peak.
Despite their buffoonery, the two brothers are surprisingly good at their jobs. By the time they locate the two enterprising outlaws, they have left a trail of bodies behind them, without much regard for who they kill. As they move along, it becomes clear that Eli holds most of the emotional core of the film, being forced to bear many burdens as his brothers’ keeper despite being less of an outlaw than his gruff exterior portrays. In a small central cast of four stellar actors, Reilly shines as Eli.
Entering the second half, the film takes on a more magical spin, as the four join together for their common goal, a sort–of heist film where the bank is a river. The film intentionally keeps the methods behind the formula vague, and for that, the movie is all the better. It takes on a mythical persona, one of Ichor or the Philosopher’s stone. And the principle characters, at the same time, get to flex their backstories and acting skills, resulting in a few genuinely touching sequences.
Director Jacques Audiard also uses more experimental camera angles to reflect the shift between the characters during this portion. Sometimes, it results in distracting, off–center, out-of-focus shots, and others it highlights the sincerity in the film and gives the audience time to reflect.
The Sisters Brothers flits between buddy film and Western crime drama, but never loses the theme of family ties, brotherly bonds, and the effect one person can have on another. Joaquin Phoenix best exemplifies this as Charlie, who continuously struggles to escape his heredity while also accept his own actions. By the end of the two–hour film, he must take stock of his impulses and how it has cost himself in some ways, but those around him far more.