See, they’re a couple of brothers whose last name is Sisters. “The Sisters brothers.” Get it? As a novel, much of what made The Sisters Brothers so entertaining was author Patrick DeWitt’s amusingly dry way with words, his knack for turning a phrase. You’re bound to lose some of that with any film adaptation, but this version, directed by Jacques Audiard (Rust & Bone, A Prophet), conveys most of the book’s darkly comic charm while presenting a minor spin on the Western formula.
Set in 1851 in Oregon, it’s about a pair of hired assassins, Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) Sisters. Neither one has any qualms about killing, though Eli is starting to think about leaving the business and doing something quieter. (Charlie, a full-time alcoholic, is keen to keep drinking and murdering forever.) Their latest assignment is to find and execute a gold prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who it turns out has developed a chemical method for finding gold deposits that the Sisterses’ shady boss, the Commodore (Rutger Hauer), wants to steal. A polite tracker named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) leads the Sisters boys to Hermann, whereupon the four strike a new bargain.
There’s more to it than that; it’s an episodic, pleasantly rambling story with many scenic detours and quaint details, like Eli trying one of these newfangled “toothbrushes” for the first time. The brothers have violent, funny quarrels, but they stick together when facing opponents, like good brothers do. Phoenix is fascinating as the disastrous Charlie, while Reilly’s endearing performance as the curious, tender-hearted Eli is among his best. Ahmed and Gyllenhaal (also together in Nightcrawler) add color as the story’s secondary duo, playing characters who could just as easily be the protagonists in this diverting Western lark.