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Laramie Movie Scope: The Sisters Brothers

A very strange, violent trip through the Old West

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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October 25, 2018 – I went to see this at the local theater because it got good reviews. I like westerns (not enough of them are made anymore) and I am originally from Oregon, where much of this film is set. It was not what I expected (since I had not read the book written by Patrick deWitt on which this film is based) but it didn't disappoint me, either.

I had this idea from the title of the film that it was about a couple of brothers from the town of Sisters, Oregon (its near Bend and Redmond, Oregon, you can look it up) or about brothers who are out to save their sisters, or out for revenge because of what was done to their sisters, or something like that. That has nothing to do with the title. It has to do with the names of the brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters (played by John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix, respectively).

Eli and Charlie are guns for hire, working for a crime boss named The Commodore (Rutger Hauer) in Oregon City. The film opens with the brothers in a gun battle at night. The only thing visible is the muzzle flash from the guns. Somehow, Eli and Charlie, though outnumbered, kill everyone else in the fight and emerge unscathed.

Much of the story is about the relationship between Eli and Charlie. Charlie enjoys fighting, killing, drinking, and whoring, while Eli just tags along, trying to keep his brother out of trouble. He feels obligated to Charlie because of something that happened in the distant past. Eli doesn't think there is a future in being a hired killer. He wants to retire and settle down. Charlie can't imagine doing anything else than being a hired gun.

In one scene, Eli hires a whore (played by Allison Tolman of “The Gift”) to enact a scene with him with specific words and actions that seem to come from his past, perhaps when he left home. He is looking for something very specific to fill a desperate emotional need. In this very powerful scene, Eli's vulnerability, sensitivity and gentleness are more than she can handle. Leaving, she is moved to warn Eli of a plot to kill the brothers.

The world of the Sisters Brothers, set in Oregon and Californian in 1851 is violent and heartless. Desperate men seek their fortune in the gold fields of California and others prey upon them, seeking any advantage they can get. Eli and Charlie are hired by the Commodore to hunt down a chemist named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed of “Venom”) on his way to California. He has a secret formula which makes it easier to find gold. It is a chemical which makes gold glow in the dark (in fact, gold is not reactive with chemicals). The Brothers are supposed to torture Warm, get the formula, then kill him.

Another man is also in on the scheme, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal of “Everest”). Morris is to find Warm and keep him tied up until the Sisters Brothers arrive. Things don't go as planned. Morris sours on the idea of being a party to the torture and killing of Warm. His victim is a very disarming fellow who dreams of founding a utopian society in Dallas, Texas.

Eli doesn't like the idea of killing Warm, either. He figures they have enough money to retire, but when he springs that idea on Charlie, they end up in a fight. There are gunmen after Eli and Charlie. There are gunmen after Warm and Morris, too. At this point, I thought I knew how this story was going to turn out. But it sure did not turn out the way I thought it would.

This is a very gritty and dirty western, not the romantic kind of story seen in traditional westerns, but it is also quirky and funny at times, despite all the violence. They say that people don't change, but Morris and the Sisters Brothers do change for the better in this movie. The movie is not as cynical and downbeat as I thought it might be.

The acting is excellent and the story certainly takes some unexpected turns. The production values are good. The cinematography by Benoît Debie (“Get the Gringo”) is evocative. This is a fine western film. Just don't go in expecting the usual western story. It is different. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2018 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)

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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]