Not even Joaquin Phoenix Can Save Languidly-Delivered 'The Sisters Brothers'

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You can usually count on director Jacques Audiard to deliver the goods and, more times than not, he does. I was rather taken by his last four films, (in order of preference, "A Prophet," "Rust and Bone," "The Beat My Heart Skipped," and "Dheepan") all dealing with the dark corners of male masculinity. That's why his latest, "The Sisters Brothers," a grimy, gunky Western filled with absurdist nihilism, suffers from being so, well, un-Audiard-esque.  

Set in 1851, the film deals with brothers and assassins Charlie and Eli Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly play the Cowboys), as it languishes its Northwestern setting, deep through the mountains of Oregon, right into a dangerous brothel in the small town of Mayfield, and ending in the gold rush-set landscape of California. Paralleling their story are Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed's lone drifters, them too set on striking it rich in California.  

And so, for all the talent involved, the film is violent but aimless, shuffling along with barely any tension in its heavily delivered 121 minute running time. Audiard's decision to adapt Patrick De Witt's similarly-titled novel turns out to be a misbegotten endeavor. This is the French director's American filmmaking debut and it turns out to be a fairly problematic affair. Yes, Audiard and his cinematographer Benoît Debie are experts at conveying Western aesthetics on-screen; from the bad teeth to the grease and dirt, to the smelly clothes, the feeling should result in envelopment but it doesn't. Audiard fails to understand that to mythologize the old west you need more than just atmosphere; the characters need to be well-fleshed and here they fall as flat as the Oregon plains depicted on-screen. DeWitt's dreamily violent world has been lost, with the sole exception being the expertly rendered shootout sequences, which have the feel of some of the director's finer moments in this altogether languid film. [C-]