Stories that are based around a character or characters undertaking a long journey – often two people who are bound together by circumstance, or a sense of duty, or family ties, etc – are ten-a-penny in cinema, and especially so within the western genre. Such a time-worn set-up applies to Jacques Audiard’s latest, a revisionist oater in which antiheroes Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly on very good form) and his younger sibling Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) are employed as henchmen by a wealthy figure known as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer in a minor, non-speaking role). Charged with tracking down a gold prospector by the name of Hermann Kermit Warm, the two brothers bicker and endure – rather than enjoy – each other’s company, making their way from town to town, heading from Oregon into California. Along the way, the calmer, more contemplative Eli contemplates a change of direction in life, while the impetuous Charlie remains utterly wrapped up in the moment, largely incapable of seeing beyond the next saloon brawl; cinema conditioning dictates that we instantly expect them both to undergo some kind of change during their journey south.

If the outline sounds familiar, there are specific elements of the film that ensure it stands out from the litany of other works that combine the figurative inner journeys of characters with physically-demanding slogs across land, not least the ever-shifting tone and mood of the piece. These changes echo those of Patrick DeWitt’s source novel, a work that wrong-foots the reader by skipping between, say, brutal violence and sardonic humour, often in the space of the same paragraph. Very early on in the film it’s clear that the audience – like the brothers – is in for an uneasy ride: one minute you’re watching a shoot-out, the next a gruesome slice of body horror, then lighter, knockabout comedy (with Phoenix even offering touches of slapstick), and finally, in its most intriguing state, The Sisters Brothers morphs into a meditative, almost dreamlike study of the ties that bind.

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly in The Sisters Brothers

In addition, there is a lot of elliptical storytelling (a device that all-too-often sounds the death knell in terms of a movie’s box office performance, and perhaps contributed to this film’s status as a financial flop). The plot is never unduly complicated and the story is always easy to follow, but occasionally the viewer is required to do a little work and fill in the gaps. For example, some gunfights involving the brothers end abruptly, mid-shootout, and Audiard might cut to a scene showing the pair farther on down the line, where more conventional films would clearly establish that every adversary has been downed before doing so. A grizzly bear attack – something that became the most memorable moment in The Revenant – is dealt with in a similar fashion, with one of the characters simply waking from a deep slumber to find a defeated, dead bear slumped in the camp; we don’t see any of the struggle that ensued, or get to experience any of the tension that would undoubtedly have been caused by the animal’s appearance.

That’s not to say Audiard’s film is light on excitement or action, but it’s very much a secondary concern, any near-death experiences being business-as-usual for these experienced hired killers. The director is far more interested in the changing relationships between Eli and Charlie and, in a subplot that eventually merges with the main strand, the tentatively homoerotic union between Riz Ahmed’s Warm and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Morris, the latter another of The Commodore’s hired guns (and one whose highfalutin ways constantly anger Charlie Sisters).

Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed

At its best the film recalls the woozy, spiritual style of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, and there were enough of these passages to leave me thinking that The Sisters Brothers will be very warmly regarded as time passes, perhaps one day seen as a cult concern (if indeed it isn’t already; such things seem to be enshrined pretty quickly in the 21st century). The pared-down score by celebrated composer Alexandre Desplat certainly enhances the overall sense of oddness, sounding like a choppy, jerky reworking of something that might have begun life as a ‘classic’ western theme. Benoît Debie’s impressive digital cinematography, meanwhile, features some crisp interior low-light work and stunning landscape photography, even if Audiard seems wholly uninterested in lingering over the beautiful mountain vistas and plains for too long; an American director or cinematographer might have been more tempted to romanticise the land and slot in with the history of the genre by shooting on film and leaving certain views up on the screen for a few extra seconds. The Frenchman and his Belgian DoP seem less interested in such convention.

With all that in mind, as well as the generally poor box office showings of other modern westerns, it’s hardly a surprise that this failed to find a large audience upon release, but as long as you’re not the one taking the financial hit or hoping for a long and successful career in Hollywood (as Audiard may have been) that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As The Sisters Brothers peters out with a gently reverberating coda – eschewing an obvious stopping point or uplifting ending – it becomes clear that this is one that has been made for the few, rather than the many. It also strikes me that Reilly, had he been acting in another era, would have played dozens of roles in the western genre. (****)