*As always, I write these articles as if you’ve seen the movie, so...SPOILERS.
I’ve slowly but surely developed a monthly plan for this site. I begin each month with a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, and this past month I wrote about a random comedy I own and decided to make that a monthly entry. Then, after thoroughly enjoying Powers Boothe’s performance in Sudden Death, I decided to look back at some westerns I own. (So for the next few months, expect at least these three types [Van Damme, comedy, and western], with other films peppered in here and there.) It would make the most sense to start with Tombstone, which featured a very fun Boothe performance. But it reminded me more to rewatch Deadwood since the movie is coming out this weekend. I didn’t want to write about an entire TV series (perhaps I will one day cover the entire series of Deadwood), so instead I watched The Sisters Brothers, a movie I recently added to my collection. As you’ll read, this choice makes more sense than you might think in regards to Deadwood.
The Sisters Brothers and Deadwood: Children in the Wild West
When I first watched The Sisters Brothers, I was a little disappointed. I was expecting something a little more traditional, but instead I got a very offbeat, surprisingly funny, modern western. Once I realized what the film was, I embraced, and it made my top ten list last year. I was mostly taken with the relationships in the film, mainly between the titular brothers but also between Riz Ahmed and Jake Gyllenhaal’s characters. These were grown men engaged in typically serious adult things (murder, greed, gold mining, etc.), but they treated each other like children, often getting into petty spats and talking of their feelings being hurt.
I found it funny and touching, which is why I liked it so much. Funny and touching is a difficult combo to pull off. I started rewatching Deadwood recently because of the movie, and I remembered what I loved so much about that show. While it also dealt with similar adult things, many of its characters were very childlike. Most of them simply want to make friends. A. W. Merrick getting giddy when he is able to walk and talk with Bullock, Star, and Utter; Calamity Jane and Joanie Stubbs (and Mose) finding friendship. Blazanov finding joy in acceptance in the camp. There are also multiple instances of characters getting their feelings hurt, and letting people know about it. The obvious example is E. B., who spends much of the series angry at being left out. But there’s also Dan, presented as one of the toughest characters, who nearly breaks down in tears when rebuked by Swearengen. And then there’s the fascination the characters have with children in general. Tom Nuttall (tragically) showing William Bullock his new bike. Mose and Jane’s interest in the school children. There’s certainly a metaphor there about how young our country was, especially in that time and place. But I think David Milch was simply using the western as a backdrop to show that no matter how serious our business gets, we are all still children in many ways.
The Sisters Brothers wholly embraces this. Charlie and Eli are killers, but they are also children. The brother relationship is an easy set up for this: teasing, fighting, etc. But it goes beyond that. Charlie basically has temper tantrums and is prone to hitting someone if he gets upset. Eli is more gentle, forming a bond with his horse, and inquisitive, as he is always amazed at new technology such as the toothbrush. With Hermann and Morris, it’s more the Deadwood route, as they embrace friendship over greed, although greed is steal a big part of their plan.
So what is it that draws me to such stories? I suppose, especially now that I have children, I am fascinated with how long a person can hold onto the simple feelings of childhood. I myself have taken to embracing my childhood love of dorky things rather than feeling too old for them. I find it amusing when an adult embraces their inner child, and I always find it touching when someone can admit they are lonely or their feelings are hurt and want to make things better. So a big moment that won me over in this film was the dinner fight between Eli and Charlie, and Eli’s confrontation of Charlie the next day. He was upset because Charlie hit him in public. The scene is emotionally effective, and it ends very humorously when the tension is resolved by Charlie letting Eli hit him for payback. That is why I love this movie so much. It makes me feel something and think about humanity, then it turns things around and makes me laugh.
Much like Deadwood, I think one of the messages of The Sisters Brothers is that despite out deadly serious actions, we’re all just kids playing and being adults. Just look at the ending. The brothers return home to be taken care of by their mother, and the final shot is a visual metaphor for the perpetual children theme: a grown man lying in his childhood bed, his feet now hanging over the end. It’s a very poignant ending, and it makes this western stand apart in my collection.
This is a weird western, but most are these days.
Once I accepted this as a modern, weird western, I enjoyed it very much. I love traditional westerns, but I’m also a big fan of films like this, which take expectations or tropes and shake things up.
The main aspect I like about The Sisters Brothers is how it shows elements of daily life not always shown in westerns. (Deadwood was pretty good about this, as well.) Some things I noticed included showing them cut their own hair, Eli’s aforementioned discovery of a toothbrush and his struggle to figure out how to use it, Charlie actually being hungover from drinking whiskey nonstop, how long it takes to travel from place to place, the dangers of sleeping outside (no scene made me cringe as much as when that spider crawled in Eli’s mouth), experiencing plumbing for the first time, and actually dealing with horses.
The Sisters Brothers isn’t the first movie to acknowledge these things, but there does seem to be a focus on them. Too often, westerns present this fantasy world, so I like it when one takes the time to show the mundane aspects of life at the time.
On top of that, this movie went in a direction I was not anticipating at all when the gold-finding chemical was introduced. The fact that it worked was one off part, but when Charlie dumped it all in at once and nearly killed everyone, the film took quite the turn. That is, in essence, what impresses me the most with films these days: the ability to surprise. More than that, the ability to surprise me without cheating. The Sisters Brothers is able to exist as a traditional western while also naturally going in a new direction with each scene. This is why I hold it in the same regard as Deadwood.
Why do I own this?
I consider this a companion piece to Deadwood, so in the future when I inevitably Deadwood again and again, I will also revisit this movie, so I should own it.
Okay, the amount of production companies listed at the beginning is insane. Thankfully it's just on a single screen. If they each got their own title sequence the movie would be five minutes longer.
This movie made me wonder: would I instinctively know how to brush my teeth, or would I try it as John C. Reilly does?
I love how Phoenix keeps talking shit about the pretentious (and Western cliche) language of the letters they read.
"We can kill anyone we want here!"
I like how Phoenix announces that they are the Sisters Brothers when they go from place to place to see if anyone has heard of them. It plays on the Western trope of all these gunslingers being famous and known in each town they go to when the reality was most likely that a lot of hired guns and whatnot were never known.
I love the bluntness of Phoenix throughout the movie.
John C. Reilly and Gyllenhaal are toothbrushing buddies!
Jake Gyllenhaal is doing this faux fancy accent, and it works since Charlie constantly complains about how fake and pretentious he is.
This movie is darkly comedic to me because every time it seems like things are going to calmly, some violence ensues, usually instigated by Charlie. His dumping of the chemical that eventually kills Ahmed and Gyllenhaal is the most tragic example. That moment, among many others, shows how unpredictable this movie is.
Richard Brake is given about as much to do as Rutger Hauer.
"Have you noticed how long it's been since anyone's tried to kill us?"
And the most unpredictable showdown with the bad guy: stopping by his funeral to punch his dead body to make sure he's dead.
John C. Reilly punching the Commodore's dead body is what really put me over the top with this movie. It just caught me off guard and made me laugh. The whole movie is so random, and that's why I love it.
That has to be the ancestor of Carol Kane's character from Kimmy Schmidt.
"With the participation of Rutger Hauer" That is the most accurate credit I've ever seen.