The Sisters Brothers is first and foremost just a damn solid Western. This isn't really surprising: director Jacques Audiard (making his eighth feature film and his first in English) has largely made it his business to make damn solid movies in traditional genres, and it's increasingly looking like A Prophet, which was more like an operatic masterpiece of a gangster movie than merely a damn solid example of one, was a one-off peak of quality that the filmmaker shan't be replicating anytime soon. Still, both as an example of how to address the concerns of the Western with substantial craftsmanship and a good sense of how to trouble the standard psychology of the genre, thereby providing a showpiece for four character actors to do some supremely impressive work, The Sisters Brothers is thoroughly satisfying. I don't know that there's much in here for someone who's not already onboard with Westerns in general, but for we who are fans of the form, there hasn't been a better one in a good many years.

Adapted by Audiard and his longtime writing partner Thomas Bidegain from a novel by Patrick DeWitt, The Sisters Brothers is actually two stories in one, both driving towards the same goal, both about male relationships under stress. The main one, of course, is that of the Sisters brothers themselves: Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) are a pair of all-purpose gunslingers at some wholly undefined point in the history of the American West, and their current job is tracking and killing Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) on behalf of a notorious robber baron and crime boss known only as the Commodore. Charlie is more or less openly a psychopath, and enjoys this work, but Eli has grown awfully tired of the whole "Wild West gunslinger" shtick, and this is leading the brothers to an irreconcilable break. Occasionally interrupting this plotline, another one of the Commodore's contractor, the fastidious John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), has caught up with Warm, and what he learns from the fugitive convinces him to throw in with Warm and his vision of a better world, free of the wanton violence that defines all of their lives.

Between the four of them, Reilly, Phoenix, Ahmed, and Gyllenhaal make for a pretty impressive pedigree, and they're all in peak form here (Phoenix perhaps least impressively; he's the most in his wheelhouse of any of the leads). The Sisters Brothers has very little in the way of narrative drive; instead, it mostly has a series of character conflicts, with the very fact that nothing seems to be going forward at any particular speed creating friction between the Sisters brothers. And even more than that, it has just wonderful character stuff, little beats where we get to see who these people are and how they try to get by. For example, the film's best scene finds Eli attempting to walk a prostitute through a role-play scenario that's about emotional intimacy rather than sex (which never enters into things, anyway); Reilly is better in this scene than he's bee in any movie in years, making Eli both a sad, simple nobody who just wants kindness, but also coloring that with a hostile impatience, a sense that this big sad-sack could indeed turn violent on a moment's notice just because he doesn't think the world is fair to him. This is fascinating character work for its own sake, with very little that impacts the rest of the film; little moments like this one abound, where the movie simply stops to let us learn something about the leads.

The film in which these characters find themselves is, accordingly, focused on moods more than anything else. Not exclusively melancholic moods, despite what I've probably made it sound like. Actually, The Sisters Brothers is a comedy, somewhat. Certainly, it has a light touch in the scenes involving Warm and Morris, which are also literally lighter: Benoît Debie's cinematography favors a lot of shadowy nights and murky interiors when the brothers are the focus, but perhaps reflecting Warm's optimism (not to mention his very name, now that I'm thinking about it), his scenes are crisper and brighter and lean more towards yellow and green. The Sisters brothers themselves bring the energy down a bit, surrounded as they are by drab grey-browns and blues (including multiple of shots of dark blue nighttime landscapes interrupted by little orange starbursts of gunfire, creating a cryptic, anonymous feeling to the film's eruptions of violence). But even here, there remains a baseline of sardonic humor that works hand in hand with the subdued, elegiac qualities of the film. Like many neo-Westerns, the film is about bad men trying to find a way off of the immoral path they've gotten started going down; unlike many of them, it doesn't belabor the seriousness of this. It has more of a genial attitude towards characters that are doomed in their hope to better themselves, looking with a patronising, amused kindness on their foibles. This only really shifts in the film's strong final scene, a fluid single shot that compresses time into a few moments of peace spilling one on top of the next, giving the characters the moral center that some of them have wanted.

The sustained tone of light elegy keeps The Sisters Brothers going for quite a while, and in concert with Debie's beautiful compositions of humans struggling to keep pace with the landscape around them (the movie unfortunately does have a tendency to look too digital - the color grading, in particular, is just plain garish), and Alexandre Desplat's twanging contemporary gloss on Western motifs (a sharp, difficult score, despite seeming superficially plain; it is, I think, one of the year's best), the film is quite pleasurable to watch. And with those actors playing these characters, it even has a strong human center. For reasons that I can't quite pin down, it still feels a little too small-ish; maybe it's that the ideas are ones the Western has been reliable expressing for a solid 45 years at this point, maybe it's that the overwhelming lack of a plot means this is basically just a hangout movie, and the film adopts too distant a tone from its characters to feel like we can really hang out with them. Maybe it's just that the digital image processing bothered me more than I think. Whatever the case, it's a well-made film but not a particularly striking or insightful one. Audiard's last film, the 2015 Palme d'Or-winner Dheepan, struck me in a similar way: superbly acted, well-etched characters, and just a little bit too obviously the thing it is to feel like it's doing more than sitting there, being admirable. But there aren't enough Westerns to turn down such an enjoyable for no good reason, and by all means this is enjoyable - a surprisingly kind character study that doesn't deny its characters their flaws, but finds them all the more human because of them.