Pull up a chair by the stove, you thar young whelp. Let me tell ye ’bout a madness that swept over the whole country ’round abouts 1849. They called it gold fever, and that blasted metal sent plenty a man out of his dadburned mind.
They’d leave behind jobs and families, sure as shootin’—rushin’ from all over tarnation to the gold hills of Californ-i-ay. Not that them hills were yella, mind. Them prospectors shoveled plenty of brown before they ever laid sight on a glint, and that’s if they saw it at all. They sunk their fortunes in picks and pans, and what did most of ’em get? A big tin of nothin’, that’s what!
But all them prospectors, they had needs of their own to fill. That’s where the real fortunes were made. Yessir. Mercantiles and saloons, houses of God and houses of ill-repute (if y’take my meaning) all sprung up ’round those gold camps. And then y’had them wheeler-dealers, who didn’t know a lick about gold but knew a lot about men and money, and t’weren’t above using one to make t’other. And when a deal went south, well, them thar fee-nan-ciers sometimes needed a few roughnecks to collect.
The Sisters brothers were two such hombres. Old West assassins, they were, and mostly they made a living by killin’. And they really were brothers by the name a’ Sisters: Charlie was the younger ‘un, but he was surely the leader, too—a hand at deals and cards, lethal with the ladies, and with his own trusty gun, a’ course. Killed more men than the plague, I’d reckon. Drank too much, though. T’was a little off his nut, if y’ask me.
Eli was the older, more normal one. Yeah, he rode with his brother, and he sure didn’t hesitate when the lead started flyin’. Still, always got the feelin’ that Eli’d just as well settle down with a good woman. Raise a few cattle, maybe a few kids.
But that warn’t Eli’s lot. He and Charlie worked for a rich, suit-wearing tycoon called the Commodore. Don’t know what his real name was. Couldn’t say anyone did, ‘cept maybe his kids, if’n he had any. The Sisters brothers did the Commodore’s dirty work: Commodore’d point, and those boys lept, guns out and fingers on the trigger.
But then one day, ’bout 1851, the Commodore sends ’em on a different kind of job: joining up with a city detective name of John Morris, to track down another man, Hermann Kermit Warm. Seems Warm has something the Commodore wants—a chemical formula that, rumor has it, can set gold in a river to glowin’. No need to pan for hours or days for just a few flakes: Just pick them glowin’ rocks off the river bottom and get rich.
Did Warm steal the formula from the Commodore? Well, the old coot seems a little uncertain on that par-ticular point, but it don’t matter. Not to Morris, anyhow. And certainly not to the Sisters brothers. Only gold they give one whisker’s flick about is the shiny stuff that comes out of the Commodore’s own pockets.
‘Less they catch the fever themselves, that is.
Except for Eli’s rather bloody occupation, the elder Sister brother seems like a nice enough chap. Indeed, we learn that Eli got into their profession mainly to keep an eye on his more volatile brother. “I had to help him,” Eli explains. “He’s my brother.”
Alas, Eli’s influence has its limits: Charlie still gets drunk and shoots up more than his fair share of saloons. But Eli does what he can. He seems to retain more of his basic human decency, too, considering the brothers’ nasty line of work.
When Eli’s horse is injured by a bear, for example, he cares for and dotes the animal: One gets the feeling that Eli would willingly carry the horse on his back, if it came to that. And when he hires a prostitute for some companionship, Eli seems far more concerned with recalling his lady love back home—and replaying a touching moment of goodbye—than satisfying a carnal lust. The woman leaves before anything physical happens. She’s so deeply touched by Eli’s care, telling him, “You’re just very kind and gentle, and I’m not used to it.” (Which speaks volumes about the sort of treatment she probably is used to.)
Neither Eli nor Morris seem too keen on torturing the secret chemical formula out of Mr. Warm, so they’ve got that going for them. And toward the end, it seems that all four develop something akin to a shared, very unlikely friendship.
We see a church now and again in the background. Someone wears a cross.
Charlie spends part of an evening with several ladies of said evening. The brothel he’s in is filled with other men and women: We see glimpses of female nudity (including partial views of breasts) and some sexual movements before the camera finally finds Charlie surrounded by mostly unclad women.
Eli carries a red shawl, apparently given to him by a lady friend back home. He folds and unfolds it, and he sometimes smells it, hoping to catch a whiff of his would-be girlfriend. A scene later on implies masturbation. When Eli hires a prostitute to pretend to be his far-away lover, he kisses her.
The brothers eventually come to a town called Mayfield, named after its proprietor—an apparent woman dressed in standard saloon-type garb. The brothers show surprise that a woman runs the town—or perhaps detect that Mayfield is, in fact, a man dressed up as a woman. (Though there’s no obvious reference to Mayfield being a transsexual, the character is played by Rebecca Root, a transsexual actor.)
We see both Charlie and Eli shirtless now and then.
The Sisters brothers are killers by profession, and we see them at work plenty.
More than a dozen men fall before their gunfire, the reports of the firearms sounding seat-rattlingly explosive here. Often after a shootout, the brothers will walk through the battleground, shooting the dead or dying again in the head (often accompanied by sprays of blood), just to be sure. The camera doesn’t linger long on the corpses as a rule, but it does make a couple of exceptions: In one case, the dead body sprawls in front of an open safe, blood pouring out of an open wound and pooling around the female victim’s head.
Someone falls from a roof. Charlie shoots a bear: We don’t see the kill, but do see the bear’s corpse, as well as the damage the bear did to Eli’s horse. (The animal’s face has been deeply gouged, and the obviously infected injury gets more grotesque as the journey wears on.) Someone dies of natural causes. Someone punches a corpse in the face twice—again, just to make sure he’s really dead. (The actual blows are just off camera.) We see the lifeless, mangled body of a horse. The brothers punch each other, and they nearly get into a massive fight at a restaurant. Other people are slugged, too. Someone’s knocked out cold.
When Warm realizes that he’s being chased, he surmises—correctly, most likely—that he’ll be tortured, and he tells someone in graphic detail what will likely be done to him. In flashback, we see the brothers’ father in a nightmarish silhouette, hacking what we first assume to be firewood. But soon, we realize that he’s actually stacking a pile of bloody arms. (We later learn that Charlie killed his father. “I’m the older one,” Eli said. “It should’ve been me,” suggesting that their violent dad had it coming.)
[Spoiler Warning] Warm’s gold-detecting concoction is highly toxic, requiring lots of washing to keep it from eating through its users’ skin. Warm’s own legs bear some of the painful-looking wounds from the last time he employed it. Someone later spills the chemical, seriously burning himself and two others. All of them bear terribly painful, horrific-looking burns. One succumbs to those wounds. Another gets someone to bring him a gun so that he can kill himself. (He’s successful: We only hear the gunshot, but afterward, we see the blood and gore form an almost-frozen fountain on the ground.) Still another has his arm sawed off by a doctor. We see part of that gruesome operation—perhaps the most jarring imagery in this frequently violent film—and hear more of it as we watch the doctor labor with a bone saw.
More than 25 f-words and nearly 10 s-words. We also hear more minor profanities such as “a–,” “b–ch” and “d–n.” God’s name is misused at least eight times, seven of those with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused three times.
Charlie drinks a lot, and often to excess. Practically the first sentence out of his mouth after a movie-opening gunfight is, “Let’s go get a drink.” When Eli hears gunfire during an otherwise quiet night, he looks out and sees people fleeing the local saloon, with Charlie staggering out, challenging someone—anyone—to draw on him. The next day, Eli practically has to tie Charlie upright on his horse as they attempt to ride out of town.
When Charlie’s surrounded by prostitutes one night, it looks like he’s been drinking then, too. The two brothers drink wine at a fancy dinner, and Eli suggests that he’s a little tired of protecting Charlie from his own worst impulses.
Those impulses have their root in the Sisters’ father, by the way: We learn that he drank excessively, too. Charlie suggests the same “poison” is in both of them (meaning, perhaps, both the yearning for alcohol and/or the streak of insanity his father displayed; the brothers seem to question where the drinking ended and the madness began, or whether the madness was the drinking).
Charlie and others smoke cigarettes and cigars occasionally, too. We see Charlie rolling his own cigarettes as well.
Charlie vomits after a drunken night. Eli swallows an apparently poisonous spider in his sleep (which we see creepily crawl into Eli’s mouth). When he wakes up, his whole body is swollen, and he spends the next few days dealing with the poison, including chills and fever. We learn that Morris had a difficult relationship with his father. Eli marvels at a flushing toilet. We see people gamble (and fight when someone’s suspected of cheating).
Many a Western has suggested that gold fever is a malady of the worst sort, prone to drive a man mad. Even real gold is ultimately fool’s gold, these films suggest—a dream that promises the world but leaves its pursuers empty in the end.
“I know what gold does to men’s souls,” says an old-timer named Curtain in the classic Western Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
The Sisters Brothers, for all its violence and excess, offers an interesting bend in that take: The souls here have already been twisted and corrupted. Here, gold holds the promise of redemption, of a better world. For some, that “better world” is a real, stick-in-the-ground place, an imagined utopian community where like-minded people can work toward the betterment of themselves and others. Others believe that gold can help them extricate themselves from the rough, violent lives they now live.
And some don’t care about the gold one whit. They just want to keep on killing.
“Unlike you, brother,” Charlie sniffs, “I’m proud of what we do.”
And so we feel the movie’s tension between the violent, glamorous Old West—embodied by the hard-drinking, straight-shooting Charlie—and the “better world” imagined by Eli, a guy who longs for his sweetie back home. The guy who just wants to open a store and settle down. A guy who buys a toothbrush, for heaven’s sake.
But here’s the funny thing about movies: Even as The Sisters Brothers lauds Eli’s desire for a more peaceful, more civilized future, it revels in the violence and excess we’d associate with Charlie. After all, who’s gonna see a movie about a quiet guy who owns a store and brushes his teeth? No, this film is all about these iron-toting Old West assassins, gunning down whoever might get in their way.
And as this movie suggests, gold ain’t the only thing that can do bad things to our souls.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.