Based on the novel by Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers breathes new life into the Western genre. It tells the story of Eli and Charlie Sisters; two gunmen in 1850s Oregon who are hired to hunt down a gold prospector. The iconic Western style is instantly captured through the majestic rural landscape and classic gunslinger costumes of hats, boots, and spurs. On the other hand, the distinctive characters and the unique narrative are both delightfully offbeat.
Perhaps the best part of The Sisters Brothers though is the stellar cast and the riveting performances. John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix play the two brothers who are comically opposed yet also counterbalancing; Reilly is the responsible, thoughtful one and Phoenix is the wild, impulsive one. Riz Ahmed enacts the idealistic prospector and Jake Gyllenhaal is featured too. However, the complexity and development of these two characters is rather limited so we don’t have quite the same connection with them as we do with the lead duo. Another notable role is Mayfield, who is also after the gold extraction formula. She is played by Rebecca Root which is refreshing as it isn’t common to see a transgender actor as a character whose gender identity is not at the forefront of who they are.
‘While The Sisters Brothers avoids this cliché by having a pair of antihero figures instead and no sole enemy, the absence of a strong antagonistic character diminishes the captivation of the audience’
One of the more disappointing aspects of the film is the lack of an intriguing villain. As many know, a Western typically consists of a hero and a crook, with the story culminating in a dramatic gunfight between the two. While The Sisters Brothers avoids this cliché by having a pair of antihero figures instead and no sole enemy, the absence of a strong antagonistic character diminishes the captivation of the audience. The empathy for the protagonists is not as profound nor is the anticipation of the gunfights. Despite this, the two brothers are usually an enjoyable watch, especially in the few darkly comedic scenes (involving a poisonous spider, corpse-punching and the like) though these are rather sparse and maybe a bit too bizarre for some to be found funny.
The soundtrack however is a perfect fit to the movie; rhythmic and suspenseful, driving the film forward when the narrative is lacking. The pivotal scene of the Western has to be, hands down, the gold extraction in the river. This is the most gripping part of the movie, where we are just as thrilled as the characters to witness pure gold nuggets shimmering in the midnight blue water. It is at this point that the character interactions are the most emotive and arguably where the principal message of the film is expressed (albeit dismally pessimistic): the danger of greed.
Overall The Sisters Brothers feels like one of those movies that is on the cusp of something promising but unfortunately falls short. While it tries to stay true to the book it is adapted from, the plot advances at too slow a pace to excite the audience and the individual personalities of the characters are not explored enough for us to really warm to them. Furthermore, while the main cast is well chosen, it would have been nice to see a more diverse range of actors in the minor roles. Probably the biggest deficiency of the film though is its message to the audience. There is no inspiring moral lesson that leaves the movie lingering in our minds long after we have watched it or any clear intention at all. To sum up, there are definitely better Westerns out there (might I direct you towards Dances with Wolves for something more traditional or Django Unchained for something more original). But if you feel like watching something a bit different, with a dash of humour, a hint of tenderness and a prevailing fraternal bond, then The Sisters Brothers is for you.