The Sisters Brothers. 2018. Directed by Jacques Audiard. Screenplay by Audiard & Thomas Bidegain. Based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt.
Starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rebecca Root, Allison Tolman, Rutger Hauer, & Carol Kane.
Annapurna Pictures/Page 114/Why Not Productions
Rated R. 121 minutes.
Father Gore took a course on Canadian Literature during his BA (Hons.), and one of the novels studied was the, at the time, new novel from Patrick DeWitt, The Sisters Brothers. It’s a captivating, odd, and subversive look at the American Wild West, from the perspective of a Canadian author. The two Sisters Brothers – Eli and Charlie, played by John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix respectively in the film – are guns for hire, and on their latest job they decide not to kill their target, which has many repercussions.
The DeWitt novel already tackled ideas of modernity and masculinity through the Western Frontier genre. Jacques Audiard’s adaptation takes these themes further, offering a singular vision of the American West, occupied by characters who desperately want to escape cycles of violent greed only to be constantly pulled back into its orbit.
If the regular Western is about toxic men and their endless violence, this story is about men attempting to grapple with those aspects of themselves. This doesn’t mean they’re able to avoid or fight it. The self-reflection of El and Charlie offers a different reading of the Western that allows us a different approach to a historical period often depicted on film and just as often either romanticised or ignorant to the era’s issues. All the male cowboy characters of Audiard’s film are afflicted with the same trouble: the legacy of patriarchies. The Western’s been dominated by men, both in terms of characters, as well as the authors who write them. The Sisters Brothers confronts this by having its male characters face a patriarchal world shifting into a newer and (hopefully) more gentle incarnation, even if it remains a slow, painful process.
Just the naming of the Sisters Brothers themselves is a tongue-in-cheek, “A Boy Named Sue“-like antagonistic name for the two brothers existing in a time of hard living and even harder men. It’s a last name you’d expect could start a fight in any saloon they walk into after someone at the bar hears the pair introduce themselves. They’re perfectly named for an age of excessively violent masculinity. While Eli and Charlie’s father didn’t choose his last name, he nevertheless passed it on to his sons, like he did his genes. Their whole lives are shaped by their father. “I had a dream about pa last night,” Eli says one morning. In sleep he’s still haunted by his father’s presence. They worry about having children, too: “You‘re not afraid to reproduce yourself?” They’re constantly concerned about the legacy of their father’s blood and what it means for them.
Eli is particularly affected as the oldest brother. Even his sexuality isn’t left untouched. In one scene, he goes up to his room with a sex worker. He asks her to perform a gesture of handing him a shawl like it’s a gift— the one he carries with him on the road, given to him by a schoolteacher he cares about back home. Unlike the rough men of the West, and his own father, Eli has a sensitive nature at odds with the world around him and one more tender than his line of work would suggest. He has a special bond with his horse, too. The love of his horse suggests Eli sees animals as more than his vehicle, just as he sees women as more than a sexual object by wanting connection and romance. There’s an innocence about Eli, in the midst of a cruel world, that goes directly against the Wild West’s toxic masculinity.
Eli and Charlie remain caught in their childhood somewhat despite being grown men and also hired killers. Eli wakes his younger brother from a brothel by telling him “Mom says get up” and Charlie immediately wakes from his drunken, drug-induced stupor, as if they’re children back home under mother’s care. The sensitivity both brothers display, albeit in different ways, portrays them as cowboys falling out of love with the wild world in which they reluctantly exist, and men starting to see the moral error in their lives.
There’s also a major look at the ways masculinity is defined by harshness and violence in a setting which simultaneously forbade male sensitivity. When John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) dies, Charlie covers himself to cry, not allowing his own brother to watch him shed tears. The hidden, shamed masculine keeps men of the Wild West hard and emotionless. After Charlie has a wounded arm amputated later, he refuses to let Eli lead his horse, and he can no longer use a gun properly, relegated to hiding their horses. He weeps openly only when the bandage is changed, choosing to do most of his crying while his brother sleeps.
“Listening to you, what do I realise? That most of the things that I thought I’d been doing these past years, freely the opinions that I thought I had of my own volition were in fact dictated by my hatred towards that man.”
It isn’t only the cowboys in this film that are changing, so is the overall social landscape of the Wild West. An early scene, straight out of the novel, depicts Charlie and Eli in a General Store where they purchase various items. The shopkeeper shows Eli a new advent in hygiene: toothpaste powder and a toothbrush. We watch afterwards as Eli reads directions, brushing his teeth awkwardly and thrilled at the minty fresh smell of a clean mouth. Later, when the Sisters Brothers arrive in San Francisco, they go to a hotel where they’re impressed by the luxuries of a brand new water closet and a bathroom complete with running water. Their primitive, violent nature emerges in the dining room at supper when Charlie’s unable to stay civil and causes a scene, juxtaposing the Wild West against a fancy modern setting to illustrate a rocky transition for rough men lurching towards modernity.
Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) represents the changing world as a chemist looking to solve American greed. He’s a socialist before the Paris Commune and before Marx. He envisions “true democracy and sharing” through the invention of a new society to quell violence between men in a world not based on capital. Warm’s presence, and his involvement with Morris, transforms Audiard’s Frontier tale into a socialist Western. The chemist and Morris bond, though the initial purpose of John’s meeting Warm is to hold him for the Sisters Brothers to come kill on orders by the Commodore (Rutger Hauer). They come to share a view of a potentially equal world, where men are no longer set against one another in the name of money. Problem is, no matter what socioeconomic system we use as a society, greed continues to exist because it lies in the heart of men.
When Warm and Morris bring the Sisters Brothers into their plan, Charlie’s moment of frantic greed permanently injures him and inadvertently leads to the deaths of both Morris and Warm. The corrosive acid from Warm’s chemical gold finding solution is an image of greed— no coincidence it’s green: the colour of jealousy, the colour of American money. Even if Warm was attempting to do something beneficial to society, it was, essentially, a get-rich-quick scheme, and at his core, in the end, he was no better than the capitalists trying to get ahead with the Gold Rush. He wanted the gold “as a stepping stone,” but would that have worked? Would he have shared the wealth once it all belonged to him? Doesn’t matter. Warm’s method burned a greedy hole through a group of four men. There’s no telling how terrible the damage could’ve been on a grander scale. Sometimes the world changes, and other times it simply isn’t ready.
“A bit of comfort in uncertain times”
Eli and Charlie do come to a resolution for themselves by confronting the father figure remaining in their lives. The Commodore, in the novel, is actually killed by Eli, as opposed to the film’s ending where Eli returns to find the Commodore already dead and laid out in a casket. The brothers are able to put to rest the violent legacy of their lives, passed down to them by their father. The death of their father(s) enables the brothers to return home to their mother (Carol Kane), and in turn a gentler world than one ruled by patriarchies. For once, their horizon ahead is no longer dark, it’s bright and beautiful.
Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers is about our true nature coming into conflict with the nature to which our world, and the patriarchal forces in it, make us adapt. Eli and Charlie are only violent by nature because of their genes and upbringing, yet they actively fight against becoming the man their father was in life. At heart, they’re sensitive, caring men, however, as men of a certain era, they’re forced – by other men, often fathers – to live a certain way, act a certain way, and feel a certain way, or NOT feel anything. They adopt violence because it’s the way of their society, and it’s all they know. Morris is the same as the brothers, relating to Warm his life is “an empty cylinder” in the wake of realising his entire life was moulded from the hate of his father. Once the father’s gone, or, in the case of the brothers, dead, the cycle of violence is undone, and the men of the Wild West are released from a hyper-masculine fate. Not all men survive even after the cycle ends— those who do either live with change and adapt, or else perish in its wake.