John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix’s new western comedy, The Sisters Brothers, tells the story of sibling assassins, Eli and Charlie, who set out to kill Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has been accused of stealing from the siblings’ boss, Commodore. But once they find Hermann, he makes them a better offer of joining his gold mining operation, changing the brothers’ journey and making them re-evaluate their lives. The film captures many outrageous comedic moments, and the story feels so detailed that it could be real. But The Sisters Brothers isn’t based on a true story; it’s actually an adaptation Patrick DeWitt’s novel of the same name.
Despite not being based on a true story, DeWitt’s novel drew influence from a book belonging Time-Life’s Old West series, titled The Forty-Niners. In a 2011 interview with National Post, DeWitt explained that he found the book at a yard sale, telling “a history of the men, women and children who journeyed to California in the mid-19th century seeking fortune.” He had already come up with an idea of a “sensitive cowboy,” evolving into an imagined scene of two bickering outlaws. But finding The Forty-Niners gave DeWitt the background needed to set the narrative and make it feel as authentic as possible to the Gold Rush era.
But while the setting for the film and novel might feel familiar to western fans, The Sisters Brothers isn’t your typical movie in the genre. In the aforementioned interview, DeWitt explained that while he wanted to portray certain aspects from traditional westerns, the story also has a fresh take on the genre. “I enjoyed coming at something that was already sort of realized, and already fully formed, as a backdrop … and then to fill it in however [I] wanted to fill it in,” explains the author. He then added, “As much as I enjoyed writing about things that weren’t part of the tradition, I also liked addressing things that were a part of the tradition, and then trying to make them different in some way.”
This is explored further in the film, too. Throughout their journey, the brothers are forced to confront a more sensitive side to each other, differing from the overtly macho persona that heroes in traditional westerns are known for. The film delves into the brothers’ shared trauma of having an abusive, alcoholic father and how this impacted their life choices, as well as their talent of killing. Eli is also portrayed as a character who deeply longs for affection and happiness, which is a softer side to western heroes that we rarely get to see.
Another important aspect of the film is that it includes Ahmed as one of the protagonists. If you think about any western, from traditional ones like True Grit and Stagecoach, to more recent ones like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, it’s rare to find one that includes a person of color without relying on racist tropes. But in The Brothers Sisters, Ahmed portrays a character who doesn’t lack opportunities due to his race. His character, Hermann, is well-liked by the protagonists and is portrayed as the one who holds the secret to success. This is something that critics have applauded, noting the importance of having a Pakistani actor in this role, and one of the things that makes The Sisters Brothers so intriguing.