The Sisters Brothers sounds like the title of a cr-a-a-azy comedy from about 1998 starring Adam Sandler as each of two gender-dysphoric siblings. Somehow, the movie is even worse than that. Get this: Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly are brothers. But they’re also Sisters — Sisters is their surname. It’s a joke that gets repeated several times in the course of this would-be revisionist Western. (Opening line: “Hey! This is the Sisters Brothers!” I hope you weren’t drinking milk when you read that. Hilarity itself, no?)
Surely there must be more here, right? No, there really isn’t. Strained wordplay and occasional bits of buffoonery are what pass for the comedy in a dismal buddy movie with occasional bursts of gory violence that seems to be aiming for the jocular feel of a rollicking, unpredictable Quentin Tarantino trip. Instead it’s a pointless plod, not smart enough to be at home in art-house cinemas but way too dull for the multiplex. Not until an hour into the film do we even find out what the MacGuffin is.
The brothers, self-doubting Eli (Reilly) and aggressively nasty Charlie (Phoenix), are a pair of bickering hit men who speak in an anachronistic frat-boy vulgate despite being stuck in gold-rush-era Oregon and California. It’s a landscape they work as semi-competent hired guns (“well, we f***ed that up real good,” they say as they leave behind a bloodier-than-necessary mess) working for an unseen boss called the Commodore. Their prey is an errant inventor named Hermann Kermit Warm, whose name is also (I guess) meant to elicit chuckles. Warm (Riz Ahmed) is about to be apprehended by a partner of the Sisterses, the Thoreau-loving aesthete-cum-private-detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). Morris takes a liking to his captive, which places the two of them at loggerheads with the Sisters brothers as the chase continues from the Oregon frontier down to San Francisco. It turns out (we learn halfway through the movie) that Warm claims to have a chemical formula for detecting gold in water, and the Commodore wants the information coaxed out of him, preferably by serially chopping off bits of his body.
Warm and Morris provide a counterpoint to the blundering, reckless Sisters brothers, speaking in an orotund Ye Olde West style (“make haste!”) of the kind used in movies like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and the Coen Brothers’ True Grit. Warm isn’t just a gold prospector, you see: He has an idea for using his mother lode to found a socialist utopia in a faraway town called Dallas. Ho-ho: Dallas. How differently things might have turned out, we’re meant to think. As though Brook Farm and other mid-19th-century communes didn’t fail spectacularly. Not that the director, France’s Jacques Audiard making his first American film, pursues the idea beyond the level of a couple of bull sessions. If the socialist signals are meant to give his film a halo of social relevance, they don’t. Mostly the movie wastes our time with lots of low-wattage banter such as a conversation about whether the word “victimized” can be applied to the Commodore and sight gags such as having a tarantula crawl into Eli’s mouth while he’s asleep. There are several scenes in which Reilly’s character comically tries out the newfangled contraption called a “toothbrush.” The occasional spasms of violence are neither entertaining nor disturbing. They’re more like filler while we wait for Audiard to come to the point.
Unfortunately, he never does, instead leaving us with a jumble of strands he can’t weave together. There’s a bit of family trauma in the back story and Eli suffers from the void left by a mysterious, absent female figure. Much foreboding accompanies the many mentions of the Commodore, but when we finally meet him that storyline fizzles quickly. Even when things turn from larkish to darkish and genuine suffering becomes a factor, it doesn’t do much to redeem the movie. Instead it’s the signal for tepid comedy to turn into lame drama. Then even that sense of lessons painfully learned is dropped for the sake of yet another dumb gag: “Smells bad. You’re missing something,” is the remark made to a person who is minus a limb.
Everything the Sisters brothers are involved in turns out to be a vapid waste of time, the movie that bears their name very much included.