Review: Phoenix, Reilly can't find gold in 'The Sisters Brothers'

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly are brothers in the old West in this unruly comic drama

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly in "The Sisters Brothers."

A warped Western that's part Coen Brothers, part Farrelly Brothers, "The Sisters Brothers" is never quite as lively as it pretends to be or as absurdist as it would like to be. 

The Sisters Brothers are Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli (John C. Reilly), a pair of hitmen in 1851 Oregon.

They're hired by their boss, the Commodore (Rutger Hauer) to track down a chemist, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed, erasing the bad taste from "Venom"), who has perfected a formula that will illuminate gold nuggets in a riverbed. The Commodore has also sent out a lawman (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is sent to bring Warm to the Brothers Sisters.

The biggest obstacles standing in Charlie and Eli's way are themselves. Charlie is a violent drunk, who never hesitates to take a swing at his brother (or anyone else in the immediate vicinity of his fist) when he's plastered, and Eli longs for a more peaceful, quiet life.

As the film progresses, the motivations of the principals shift, and director Jacques Audiard ("Dheepan"), in his English language debut, takes his time letting the story unfold. 

"The Sisters Brothers" has some jarring changes in tone, veering from slapstick comedy to dark comedy to serious drama, and is speckled by sudden bursts of violence. It's an often unwieldy thing, and if it was a little less precious about itself (and honed in from its lengthy 121 minute running time) it would go down easier.

The Western photography — Spain and Romania stand in for the 1850s American West — is quite lovely, and the screenplay (based on Patrick DeWitt's novel) has some intriguing ideas about the idealism and desolation of the times. But "The Sisters Brothers" often feels like a journey in search of a destination.


'The Sisters Brothers'


Rated R violence including disturbing images, language, and some sexual content

Running time: 121 minutes