While I’ve discussed before that just because a film has good actors doesn’t automatically make it good, there are definitely times where the right actors in the right roles can elevate everything else around them. Sometimes the plot can be slow moving, underdeveloped, or just not there at all, but some charismatic leads who have decent chemistry can make it worth the trip. Sometimes they’re really the only reason to watch the film at all.

In 1851, Oregon, Brothers Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) are two hitmen who work for the Commodore (Rutger Hauer). Their new job is to hunt down gold prospector and alchemist Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), in order to get information on a new way to find gold. While The Sisters Brothers tracks him through the southwest, detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), also sent by the Commodore, attempts to gain Hermann’s trust in order to bring him to the brothers. 

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly are some of my favorite actors working today. They’re both incredibly versatile who have convincingly played a whole range of interesting characters throughout their careers. With them as the Sisters brothers, they both have terrific brotherly chemistry that feels very genuine. Eli is the older and more sensible brother, becoming more and more disillusioned in the kind of work they do. Charlie is a temperamental drunkard who really sees nothing but killing in his life and often gets into arguments with Eli about it. As their adventures turn into misadventures along the way and the going gets tough, they show that they really love and care about each other. They’re willing to put themselves in harm’s way to protect each other and as more backstory gets dished out during the runtime, you really understand their relationship.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed are also some of my favorite actors working today. They made for an excellent pair in Nightcrawler, so it was great to see them together again. They kind of switch roles here, with Gyllenhaal playing the more eccentric type here and Ahmed providing the more intense and mysterious role. Aside from his awful accent, Gyllenhaal still uses his excellent eye and facial expressions add to his character’s changing motivations. Both actors get heartbreaking final scenes, but all of the emotion came from the excellent performances.

Unfortunately, these compelling performances and characters weren’t serviced by a consistent narrative. The story starts off with the brothers being sent to get Hermann, but the focus of the plot would often shift. Some unpredictability is nice, but the pacing and plotting felt so inconsistent and scattered that the 121-minute runtime really dragged on. That drag could possibly be blamed on the often poor editing, though. It’s not really about the plot, but about the brothers and how their relationship changes over this journey. It’s just since everything jumped around so much, I found it difficult to really be invested in the story. There are a lot of interesting themes, such as the increasing hysteria of the gold rush and man’s madness over it (I’d love to watch a movie on that), but none of them are really given the room to develop.

The film is a total marvel from a technical standpoint, though. This is one of, if not the best, looking film I’ve seen all year. I knew I was going to love Benoit Debie’s cinematography from the opening shot of a night desert environment suddenly being illuminated in spots from various gunfire. The scenery the actors embark through is just gorgeous and every nighttime shot that showed the horse rider’s silhouettes projected in front of the dark blue skies and black mountains took my breath away. The production design, costume design, hairstyling, and makeup are all perfectly grimy and dirty, but with a sense of sophistication as society continues to advance. Alexander Desplat’s terrific score perfectly evokes the feeling of the Old West, with a lot of great use of acoustic guitar and violins. Everything from the look, sound, and feel evoked a very antiquated Western feel.

When The Sisters Brothers came to an end, I knew exactly what director and co-writer Jacaques Audiard was going for. My heart strings were genuinely tugged, but there was a part of me that felt something was missing. I loved these characters, the performances, and the overall style of the film, but the inconsistent and unfocused narrative really dragged it down. It just shows that even if your compelling characters are brought to life by phenomenal actors, you still need an engaging story for them to go through.


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