The Sisters Brothers, a 2011 novel by successful author Patrick DeWitt, had an incredibly positive critical reception. A dark comedy with beautiful, fresh, and ingenious writing and realistic, corrupt but sympathetic characters, it quickly became a bestseller and was granted the Governor General’s Literary Award, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, and the Walter Scott prize, among others.
Its popularity led to its being purchased by a film production company owned by actor John C Reilly and adapted last year into a western starring Reilly, a black comedy and outlaw adventure which attempts to bring DeWitt’s story to life in a realistic form, without entirely losing the magic of the author’s prose. I mention this challenge partly because I found memories of the novel slightly impeding enjoyment of the film. One of the first things I noticed about the film was that it had left out a favourite line from the first page of the book, distracting from the actual dialogue. This has to be a challenge when adapting such a widely praised work of fiction, but one which is ultimately met, not perfectly but well. The film could not have better credentials: it is directed by the critically acclaimed Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone, Dheepan), and features an impressive, well-chosen cast, beautiful work by veteran cinematographer Benoit Debie, and an impressive score by Alexandre Desplat.
The setting is the semi-mythical Wild West, specifically Oregon in 1851. John C Reilly plays Eli Sisters, partner to his older brother, Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), in their two-man criminal enterprise, tracking and executing men for private clients. It is the height of the gold rush, the historical event which inspired the original novel; greed is causing uncivilised behaviour, and tempers are high among ambitious prospectors. Just as younger brother Eli begins to yearn for a more normal, more stable life, unlike the restless, volatile, often vicious Charlie, the brothers are given a new mission from a man they know as The Commodore: to find and assassinate Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has reportedly cheated his employer.
The brothers begin their journey south, riding on horseback through an often dreamlike landscape, featuring all the conventional western vistas of sagebrush and forest, and glimpses of the disruption left behind by the prospectors bound for California. They encounter not only hardship, but an odd array of characters inhabiting the imaginary frontier: witches; a madam named Mayfield (Rebecca Root) who appears to own an entire town and has an unofficial army at her beck and call; and an aristocratic detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) also tracking Warm. The story takes an unusual turn when Hermann Warm turns out to be not a typical gold prospector, but a philosopher who dreams of starting a pacifist community based on his idealistic vision of human society, made possible by his unique, possibly suspect, approach to finding gold. Audiard remarked, during the press conference at TIFF, that he regarded the film as more a fairy tale than a western, and this approach gives The Sisters Brothers its distinctive mood, with a continual contrast between the naturalistic feeling of harsh frontier realities and strange, folkloric people and situations the brothers meet in their travels.
Entertaining as the approach is, the film has its weaknesses. It follows the same slow pace as the novel but lacks some of the book’s charming, slightly archaic language and quirky dialogue to sustain interest and provide humour. Audiard remarked that the charm of the original novel was literary and that he felt the need to move away from the book rather than try to replicate it. This may have been a mistake; the film is at its best when it follows the novel closely, and drags when it breaks away from the source. There are also unfortunate scenes which attempt to be intriguingly vague and indirect and come out merely irritatingly confusing, particularly those shot in almost complete darkness.
What sustains the story and makes it truly effective is the consistently excellent acting, something even the film’s detractors agree on; characters whose concerns draw audience sympathy; and a plot with enough unexpected turns to keep the story flowing through dull moments. It also, like most good westerns and all good fairy tales, ultimately concludes not with tragedy or still more rough justice, but with a truly and unexpectedly heartwarming conclusion.