The Sisters Brothers announces its oddball western status right from its mildly confusing title. The story follows notorious assassin siblings Eli and Charlie Sisters, played by John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix, who are on the trail of a chemist with a secret formula to find gold. Their hunt leads the men right into the heart of the California Gold Rush. But were the Sisters Brothers real people in history, or just a figment of the Old West that never really existed save in the movies?
As it turns out, a picture really can be worth a thousand words. Patrick deWitt, author of the novel the film is based on, was at a garage sale according to the National Post, when he came across a slim volume called The Forty-Niners, part of Time-Life's larger series The Old West. It wasn't the text so much as the images — pictures of grizzled old miners and scenes of abandoned towns and work left behind by the rush to find gold — that caught his eye. DeWitt already had the slender idea, "sensitive cowboy" jotted down, but now he had a time period to place it in.
Rather than being based directly in reality, the story of Sisters Brothers was based on what deWitt didn't see in Western heroes. Talking to the National Post again, he explained, “I wanted to subvert the character of the Western hero, and neurosis is really underwritten in Westerns — it doesn’t really exist... "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.”
His book caught the eye of Alison Wilkinson, producer and wife of John C. Reilly. The couple bought the rights to the book, then did something pretty unconventional for producers — they reached out to French director Jaques Audiard and asked if he would mold the material however he saw fit. Speaking to ScreenCrush, Reilly explained they were looking for someone to make the story personal. Said the actor, "We don’t need a talented technician that we hire to execute the movie we know we already want, or to do this book exactly as it’s written. We want someone who’s going to take this material and synthesize it through their own lens of their experience, and then make a brilliant film out of it."
But why a French director for such a traditionally American genre? Well, that was part of the appeal as well. "That’s really what the American West was like at this time...There were immigrants from all over the world in the West looking for gold, and trying to make their way in America," said Reilly. "So Jacques was a good choice for that reason, and he immediately embraced that, this idea of the American West as a melting pot."
One character, gender-flipped from the book, has a different sort of historical basis. Rebecca Root plays Mayfield, a tough character running the town and hotel that bear her name. Speaking with Emaunuel Levy, Root explained it was great to have a female voice amid a macho world, and accordingly based her character on another Iron Lady. "There’s something about my Mayfield who is kind of tough and I kind of styled her a little bit on Margaret Thatcher, dare I say that? That’s kind of sort of authoritarian yet could be the mother of the town," she said.
So while The Sisters Brothers reflects an element of Wild West life rarely seen on the big screen — that it was a deluge of immigrants and migrants from all over, with normally firm boundaries of where people belonged far more fluid and intermingling — the book, and movie each have a deeply personal touch from everyone involved. It may not have a name you can look up in the history books, but The Sisters Brothers captures a bit of truth with its fictional antiheroes.