SOMETIMES, IN ORDER to appreciate how effective a good director is, it’s helpful to be reminded of how dreadful a bad director can be. The Sisters Brothers is a fine example of this. It’s a gripping enough story: the brothers, Eli and Charlie (badass gunslingers both, stunningly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix as the wild one and John C. Reilly as the slow, steady one) are sent on a mission by the shadowy Commodore (Rutger Hauer) – perhaps representing the spirit of lawlessness – to kill someone (played by the always outstanding Riz Ahmed). He’s being tracked by an ace tracker (Jake Glyllenhaal…compelling as usual).
But the hunters are themselves being hunted (for complicated reasons) by a posse of other gunslingers. There are gunfights, shadowy killers emerging suddenly in the night to finish off our sleeping protagonists, amputations, sibling rivalry, showdown gunfights, honky-tonk saloon bars; even a nicely scripted idea about the emergence of law in a place of lawlessness.
And it is all as dull as dishwater.
There’s not for even a moment, a quiver of dramatic tension; never for a second do we feel the tremor of threat. It’s as though French director Jacques Audiard (of the equally boring Rust and Bone) deliberately set out to either neutralize the excitement and thrill inherent in these Western tropes or to reinterpret them through the lense of French ennui. It’s a work of dramatic castration.
He certainly works hard at fleshing out the idiosyncrasies of his two main characters. We see them riding in the night (all very poorly lit by cinematographer Benoit Debie) talking, talking, talking. But they never for a moment feel like anything other than someone’s artistic idea. The Fargo Brothers, or Tarantino have the nous to seduce us into accepting that there might be decency and humanity beneath the rough exterior of killers. Not so Audiard. His rough killers are shoehorned by his theme (of redemption and the taming of the wild wild West) into retch-worthy cutesy-ness.
That is, if you stay awake long enough to reach the end
THE SISTERS BROTHERS. Dir/Writer: Jacques Audiard. Screenplay: Thomas Bidegain (Rust and Bone) from a book by Patrick DeWitt. With: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed. Cinematography: Benoit Debie