Toughness and tenderness surge forth from the genre settings of Jacques Audiard's work, an interplay that I've always considered forced and formulaic - The Sisters Brothers is no exception, yet also neither an exception to the fellow aspect of Audiard's work that it's never not worth watching. He's an artist capable of crafting truly compelling material, with a touch that is confident and empathetic; I only feel that he squanders this touch on contemporary revisions of various iterations of the old tough-guy trope from Pre-Code and Code-era genre movies. Like many such revisions and reimaginings, there's little new to be said about these tropes, and so The Sisters Brothers' Western is stranded between the urge to iterate something bold and new, and the lure of the Western's traditional trappings. Audiard, whose inventiveness as a filmmaker tends to announce itself only in fits and spurts, situates the movie in an unfulfilling middle ground and pretty much just leaves it there for two hours.
This is not to say that The Sisters Brothers is bereft of positive qualities or minor pleasures. That Audiard confidence holds the viewer's attention scene after scene, and imbues the picture with a plain forthrightness that's highly watchable, and inhabited by two excellent leads in John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix. Reilly's gift for unfussy character development makes him as indispensable a presence as ever, though I was more drawn to Phoenix's odder, riskier turn, emerging as it seems to from a place of endearing abandon and displaying itself in its every idiosyncrasy. Their two-hander, as brothers and mercenaries on the trail of a prospector wanted for robbing their boss, is not the sole component of the movie, however, as there's another two-hander: that prospector and the man sent to track him down and hold him until the brothers arrive, played by Riz Ahmed and Jake Gyllenhaal, respectively. In comparison, these two bear a distinctly performative demeanour, one that's unflattering on Ahmed and even more so on Gyllenhaal, armed with a legitimately heinous accent in his latest, horribly misjudged screen appearance.
There's little to be said for this movie's successes and failures, as inconsequential as they consistently are, until a closing sequence that's so sublime I wished I could linger for another two hours. It casts a brief but potent spell - perhaps only so potent for that very brevity - and introduces one of America's finest character actors for a mere few minutes of the best acting in the whole movie (I won't spoil their identity, as its reveal caused me to exclaim in surprise and delight). This is that compelling material of which Audiard is capable of crafting, something that feels sincere and fully embodied, not just some warmed-through Western with scant plot and equally scant atmosphere. The opening act, by contrast, is a curious progression of scenes that feel unfinished, with dialogue that feels awkward and unrealistic, and the fleeting rewards of these short final scenes may not be sufficient reward for duking it out. In all, the reasons to watch The Sisters Brothers are unfortunately few, yet the reasons to avoid it are similarly few.
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