Patrick deWitt’s 2011 novel The Sisters Brothers is very funny. Jacques Audiard’s new film adaptation of that novel is significantly less funny. Despite (or really, because of) this, the film is a great example of an intelligent adaptation that respects the source material enough to know when to be faithful and when to be its own thing. The resulting movie doesn’t quite reinvent the Western, but it does take the genre in an uncommon direction.
DeWitt’s novel delivers its humour and its pathos via narrator Eli Sisters. Eli and his brother Charlie are veteran hitmen in 1850s Oregon, working for a rich man called the Commodore. The Sisters brothers are blunt men with little patience for bullshit, but Eli’s narration reveals him to be more introspective than your typical gunslinger. He worries about Charlie, who he loves but doesn’t always like; he’s self-conscious about his weight; he gets sentimental about his mediocre horse, Tub; he is delighted to acquire a toothbrush, and dreams of a peaceful life with all the mod-cons of the 19th century.
The contrast between Eli’s internal neuroses and his confidence as a killer is jarring, and often amusing. Eli worries over how much money to leave a hotel clerk he has a crush on, and what that says about him, and whether there’s a future between them – pages later, he and Charlie are explaining to some hapless stooge that he has to die, and that’s unfortunate, but it’s just how it is. The comedy and the tragedy of Eli as narrator is that he is self-aware enough to find his lifestyle distasteful, but not so much that he can figure out how to change it.
It must be tempting, when adapting a film from a novel with striking prose and a first-person narrator, to make heavy use of voiceover. Audiard’s film does not, meaning we lose much of Eli’s interiority and the humour it contains, but the onscreen Sisters Brothers is all the better for it. John C. Reilly (also a producer and general powerhouse behind getting this movie made) hints at Eli’s neuroses beneath the surface of his performance, and shifts easily between the modes of sensitive soul and hardened hitman. In losing the narrator, the film also benefits from being able to move its focus away from Eli and Charlie and spend time with characters who were more minor in the novel.
In both versions, the Sisters brothers are sent by the Commodore to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm. Not only does Warm have something the Commodore wants, he has convinced the Commodore’s scout, John Morris, to abscond with him to the gold hills of California. DeWitt puts Warm and Morris on the backburner for the first half of his novel, as the brothers have a series of unrelated picaresque misadventures in their journey south. The film elevates them to the main cast, with their scenes alternating with the brothers’ until they collide.
Warm is played by Riz Ahmed as the personification of the character’s last name, a beam of sunshine and comfort in a hard world. In the novel he is affable enough, but here he represents a kind of ideal man and the gentler existence Eli so desires. Morris, meanwhile, is another great entry in the catalogue of weird Jake Gyllenhaal performances, sporting an accent that can only be categorised as dandyish. While deWitt confines their meeting and teaming-up to a single chapter late in the book, on screen we see Morris fall for Warm gradually. Their relationship is not portrayed as outright romantic in either version (perhaps a misstep), but Ahmed and Gyllenhaal certainly play it like the first flutterings of love. In contrast with Charlie and Eli’s dysfunctional, deteriorating partnership, Warm and Morris present a radical departure from conventional notions of what a Western hero should be.
Westerns, from The Great Train Robbery to Unforgiven, have tended to portray a tough land inhabited by tough men (and very few women). Neither incarnation of The Sisters Brothers entirely diverges from this, but both offer an alternative. The humour of deWitt’s novel is often caustic, but it offers some rare levity in a genre so defined by ruggedness. Eli, partially in the novel but magnified in the film, presents a softer model of Western-hero masculinity. He yearns for the better life represented by Warm and Morris, and rejects his brother’s excessive violence. As Charlie, Joaquin Phoenix is the cast member who looks most like he belongs in a classic Western, and he is as much the story’s antagonist as anything.
DeWitt’s novel is fundamentally a playful, wandering thing, and so doesn’t commit to one thematic throughline. Among its preoccupations are fatherhood (many of the bit-characters excised from the film have – or are – bad dads), the supernatural, and the encroachment of modern capitalism on the wilderness. The film is much more sincere, and so it feels right that it has something approaching a message: that change is both possible and necessary. The four leads, as Reilly has discussed, illustrate the path away from violence, towards a gentler understanding of the world. Charlie is violent and unreformed; Eli wishes to reform; Morris has begun to reform; and Warm is the goal of reform.
The film smartly streamlines deWitt’s meandering novel towards this goal. DeWitt fills his version of the west with a bevy of amusing eccentrics, driven mad by gold or strife, who more often than not end up killed by Charlie. These are largely absent from the screenplay, and those that remain are retooled to be involved somehow in the search for Warm. Warm himself is simplified a little. DeWitt gives him a chapter-long speech detailing his harrowing backstory; here he appears from nowhere. His goal is changed too: deWitt’s Warm only wants to use his skills as a chemist to make money; Audiard’s Warm plans to send this money to a utopian community he is building in Texas.
In the act of adaptation, Warm becomes more angelic and Charlie – by the exclusion of most of the victims of his wanton violence in the novel – becomes more feasible as a subject of redemption. The world itself does not become softer (pain and mayhem abound), but the story’s worldview does. This is complemented by a change in tone from one medium to the other. The film loses much of the book’s humour (from Eli’s narration and the weird bit-players), but replaces that ironic levity with moments of earnest sweetness.
It’s a tremendously sincere film through and through, with Reilly putting the friendliest possible face on a sad-sack hitman, Ahmed and Gyllenhaal lighting up the screen whenever they share a glance – even Phoenix tends to come off as a screwup big brother more than a truly evil killer. The film’s spirit is exemplified in a late scene: Warm, Morris, Charlie and Eli have joined forces to get rich with the help of Warm’s miraculous gold-detecting chemicals. For a moment, the river they are standing in shimmers as the precious metal beneath their feet is illuminated by the formula. DeWitt has things already going to hell by the time this happens, but Audiard lets the characters – and the audience – enjoy their hard-earned moment for a while before the darkness returns.