Film Review: The Sisters Brothers (2018)

***No final plot spoilers***

It has been some time since I watched a western, but this one was on TV with no advertisement breaks, and the cast list appealed to me. This is an adaptation of a novel. I haven’t read the book, so will not be commenting if it is true to the original story.

1851, and the Gold Rush is in full swing on the west coast of America. A powerful and mysterious man, known only as The Commodore, sends two hired killers on a mission to find and kill a man named Warm. They are the mis-matched brothers named Eli and Charlie Sisters.

Meanwhile, The Commodore has engaged the services of a well-spoken and efficient private detective. His name is John Morris, and he is on the trail of Warm, so he can find him and hold him captive until the brothers arrive to do the dirty work. Warm has a secret chemical formula for identifying gold under water at night. The Commodore wants Eli and Charlie to torture the chemist, write down the formula, and then kill him.

So the quest begins.

We soon discover that Charlie is a quick-tempered drunkard, who is ready to cause trouble and shoot off his gun at every opportunity. By contrast, older brother Eli is a relatively gentle person, pining for his beloved schoolteacher, who he had to leave behind in their home town. Morris finds Warm and pretends to become his friend, waiting for the opportunity to detain him pending the brothers’ arrival.

But they are delayed by all kinds of obstacles. One of their horses is attacked by a bear, and while sleeping one night, Eli is bitten by a huge spider, almost dying from the poisonous bite. When they finally arrive at the rendezvous in Jacksonville, they learn that Morris and Warm have teamed up, and fled to the gold fields. In the next town, they are betrayed by a conniving female saloon-keeper, and have to shoot their way out to freedom.

When they finally catch up with the chemist and the detctive in the California gold fields, things do not turn out as the viewer might suspect.

So, back to that casting, which made me watch the film in the first place.

John C Reilly is the older brother, Eli. Always a reliable actor, and completely convincing as the ruthless killer with a warm heart inside. His brother Charlie is played by Joaquin Phoenix. I can often take or leave that actor, and in this film I didn’t think it mattered who played the brother. Being aggressive and acting drunk has been done by many before, and some have done it better.

British actor Riz Ahmed plays the chemist, Warm. Again, he does a good enough job, but I could have thought of a dozen others who would have done it just as well. Rutger Hauer, near the end of his life, has a mere cameo role as The Commodore. His longest scene is in a coffin, so his talent was rather wasted.

It turned out to be Jake Gyllenhall who stole the film for me, a close second to John C Reilly. His erudite detective was a compelling character portrayal, and I would have liked to have seen even more of him in that film.

Full marks for historical accuracy too. From the saloon interiors, the costume department, and even the weapons used by everyone totin’ a gun.

Cinematography was first rate, as the film is undoubtedly ‘photographed’. It is a film of two halves in many ways, and the second half is far superior to the first. So, stick with it, and you will be rewarded by the latter section. By the way, the soundtrack is really good!

Far from being a landmark film, but better than many I have seen in the same genre.

(The first 25 seconds of this trailer is intentionally dark)

30 thoughts on “Film Review: The Sisters Brothers (2018)

  1. I watched this when it was transmitted ‘live’, and I was a bit uncertain prior to watching it, but I did enjoy it, even though I found the ending a bit of an anticlimax. I think I read somewhere that this film is one of the most accurate depictions of gunplay of the time, rather than the usual swaggering standoffs in the middle of the street that we generally see. Not a classic, by any means, but certainly worth watching, in my estimation. Cheers, Jon.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. (1) “The Sisters Brothers.” The title seems a bit contrived to me. How about a film about Elaine and Joyce, “The Brothers Sisters.” At least that would not be fictional.
    (2) “Rutger Hauer, near the end of his life, has a mere cameo role as The Commodore. His longest scene is in a coffin…” Maybe they should have sent his body to a taxidermist? That way, he could have hung around longer. Of corpse, that’s illegal…
    (3) But maybe Rutger Hauer was a cyborg. Half human, half Commodore computer.
    (4) The most recently filmed western I’ve seen is “Bone Tomahawk.” That was back when I used to rustle (russell?) up western films on DVD.
    (5) I’ve seen “Sister Act.” There were a lot of sisters in that film, but i don’t recall seeing Charlie and Eli in it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I really like this film. The cinematography alone, as you point out, is worth the price of admission. Joaquin Phoenix is one of my favorite actors and, of course, John C. Riley is always very good, even if the film he’s in is lackluster.

    Liked by 1 person

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