By: Dakota Gordon
I am a bit of a fan of John C. Reilly. From his earlier work in comedy classics to his more recent work as Dr. Steve Brule in Check it Out! With Dr. Steve Brule, Reilly has been more notable for his comedy roles than most else. His range as an actor, however, has shown to be quite flexible in more serious roles, such as Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and the subject of this review, The Sisters Brothers. It was Reilly to some extent that made me want to watch this film, to see him in a role where comedy wasn’t his primary factor, to see just how prominently he can project himself outside of a goofy persona.
Outside of Reilly, the synopsis for The Sisters Brothers seems a little bit like a comedy, at least in the way the trailers presented it. Two brothers, who work as hired guns, are assigned to track down a specific person and get some information out of him by any means possible. On the way, one brother decides he doesn’t want to be in the business anymore, with the other constantly badgering him for his “wimpy” decisions. And thus, the job becomes all the more complicated when the two brothers can’t even agree with one another on a philosophical level.
This is how the trailer seemed to paint the film, but when actually watching the film, it ended up being a little (a lot) more complex than brotherhood disagreement between an apathetic, life-on-the-edge killer and a gentle, killer-by-circumstance sweetheart. The political messaging present in the film ends up dealing with a lot of different ways in which empathy can influence the decisions and mindset of various people, emphasized further by the time and setting. Because of this, the film can sometimes feel unfocused, like it wants to showcase many different perspectives and motivations for human unity while also trying to rope together a single plotline involving a large-ish cast of characters. It’s overambitious, to say the least, with the subtleties presented almost overtaking the main picture and forcing things to come out at an unnatural pace, including important comparisons, lines, or interactions.
On the topic of characters, they really make the movie. There are things that The Sisters Brothers does with the characters that make the movie worth watching, despite the occasionally-reaching narrative, and whimsy, straightforward action. I’ve discussed briefly the impact that Reilly had on me prior to seeing this, and the results of seeing his more serious side only make me further appreciate his ability. He’s the most human among the cast of characters; though bogged down by relatable negative emotions and trauma, his characters still finds enough sense of humanity to remain likable and level-headed.
The other actors, notably Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix, and Riz Ahmed, all do a good job, but their performances are underwhelming and limited by the simplicity of their characters’ script. Gyllenhaal has ambition, Ahmed is incredibly nice, and Phoenix is a broken man. These specific focuses prevent them from being more focal in their development over time, as well as the emphasis on showcasing these characters stories separately until a certain point. It also creates a disconnect between them and the audience, as they see them more as substances of a grand story rather than as reliably humanistic. Kind of like looking at the film as a puzzle rather than a story.
As an experience, The Sisters Brothers is something of a journey, relating to an up-and-down process not quite as extreme as a rollercoaster, but more along the lines of a Ferris wheel. There’s a quiet intensity to the film that makes it easy to immerse oneself into, but the low parts feel as long as they are slow. The film is a little over two hours with credits, but by the halfway point, I was nearly spent. It wasn’t until the climax of the story, when a major event inhibits the possibilities of the two brothers, that I began to appreciate the assortment of things the narrative tried to do with the meshing of its characters. Much like Ferris wheels, it takes a while to get to the top, and the anxiety involved with being slowly lifted into the air supports the tensile moments scattered throughout the film. It ends in a similar fashion, as well: with a slow, easy decline to the ground. Those looking for an action-packed thriller will be disappointed.
I tend to want to award the use of experimentation and ambition over playing it safe, but there always comes a time where one’s grand schemes don’t have the proper foundations to make it feel so. The Sisters Brothers does a lot with its plot and it definitely shows with the length of time and the development of its major cast of characters, though at the cost of feeling slightly too prepared (or mechanical). There’s a dedication to storytelling that I really enjoyed with the film all throughout, and the dedication to empathy as a motivator for development is always appreciated. A good, but not quite great, exploration of humanity within a cold, desolate landscape ruled by money and power.
Final Score: 7.5/10