The Sisters Brothers


   A Western is a genre where the Director can let the viewer relax, enjoy the vistas, and let the characters develop slowly, because time almost stands still out in the frontier.  No fences.  No frustrating invisible property lines.  Just you and your horse and the wind in your face and the sun at your back.  A campfire by night, with maybe a can of beans to go with it.  Ah, but what if your horse goes lame, it's raining buckets and you have no cover, and you can't sleep on the ground because there's running water?  Well, that just has to be part of the charm of independent living.  What if some bad hombres are after you, and they're paid bounty hunters, and you're the object of their unwanted attention?  That's when the Western is not as bucolic as it appears.

   Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) are brothers.  Together they work for The Commodore, who's really no more than a gang boss.  When he needs to eliminate certain rivals, he calls the Sisters Brothers.  They seem to be invincible in a gunfight.  (After all, most folks are very inexperienced at that kind of thing, even if they carry a gun and act tough and make the mistake of thinking there is strength in numbers.)  The two brothers are also sort of oddly matched.  Eli, the older one, is definitely more mature;  in fact, he's starting to look past his prime.  But he also is determined to take care of his headstrong, impulsive little brother Charlie, who has a tendency to get drunk whenever whiskey is available.  Charlie also loves the ladies of the evening, and while he's indulging himself, Eli is standing at the bar, acting as lookout for some unscrupulous folks who would take advantage of a drunken cowboy.  And yes, that's part of the Wild West, as well.  (Though the line dancing scene in the saloon looked more staged than real.)

   The Sisters Brothers' most recent task from The Commodore involves tracking down John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is himself tracking down a certain scientist-prospector named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed).  It seems Mr. Warm has developed a formula for making gold nuggets glow in the dark.  If that's true, prospecting would be a lot easier than the current methods, which by the way, have attracted many a '49er (though it's now 1851, and we're sometimes in the territory of Oregon, not the State of California, still, gold fever rages through the whole land).  The problem is, the formula, once mixed, is quite toxic, so those who would handle it must be extremely careful.  Oh, and then there's the problem of dealing with the greed.  One less person in the group means your share gets bigger, right?  Well, Mr. Warm thinks his motives are altruistic, because he wants to apply his share of the proceeds toward a new utopian society based in Dallas, Texas, which at that time boasted a population without a comma.  

     The Sisters Brothers remain fiercely loyal to each other, no matter what happens, even when they fight among themselves.  They also do sublime things like give each other haircuts, and talk about the dream they had last night. When Eli first mentions that he's thinking he might be getting too old for this adventurism, Charlie is appalled, because he can't think of doing anything else.  But then, circumstances change dramatically, and suddenly their thoughts turn to home, which they haven't visited in a long time, but then, they hope that the old saying is true, that when you go there, they have to let you in. (Never mind that the Robert Frost poem was first published in 1914.)  Is there such a thing as a "happily ever after" for a couple of retired gunslingers?  Maybe it's nothing more or less than the sun in your face, the wind at your back, and the horse grazing contentedly in your pasture.


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association