A darkly funny, satisfyingly violent adaptation of Patrick DeWitt’s novel, The Sisters Brothers follows four men whose bumbling paths cross in Oregon and California in 1851. The titular brothers are assassins, and are played with predictable excellence by John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix; when they aren't drinking or bickering, they're chasing two other men, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed (also excellent, also predictably). There are intense shoot-outs and there are goofy pratfalls, and there's dread and sadness and mishaps involving everything from an angry bear to a well-loved shawl. Somehow, the ungainly contraption holds together beautifully.
Granted, it takes a while for Jacques Audiard's film to settle in: Its tone, at once rambunctious and melancholy, echoes the weird, whiplash trajectory of real life, but it's rarely experienced in the multiplex. Once you adapt to The Sisters Brothers' world, though, its uncaring fate and dead-on performances combine to sum up everything wonderful and awful about manifest destiny. And that's before Audiard digs into the sometimes sweet, sometimes cruel relationships between the men; even as the plot veers and spins, these characters never stop being profoundly pleasurable, consistently surprising company.
The result is sharp, affecting, and fun story that climbs mountains, spans plains, and literally burns down barns. It also features John C. Reilly barfing up hundreds of baby spiders, and if that’s not a wholehearted recommendation, I don’t know what is.