by Alvin G. Burstein
Varieties of Western tales, film and story, abound. There is the mysterious stranger who arrives to right wrongs like Shane or The Lone Ranger; there are the stories of a gunslinger, sometimes aging, sometimes retired, like The Unforgiven and The Long Ride; there are ironic spoofs like Cat Ballou and Destry Rides Again. The Sisters Brothers is somehow different, hard to place.
Given that it is in no sense a biopic, its title is an unsubtle indication of a focus on gender, and perhaps especially, Oedipal relationships.
As it unfolds, it goes to lengths to de-sanitize our view of the West in the 1850s; people are unshaven, clothing worn and stained. It abounds with fire fights that make the spaghetti westerns seem tame. There are gross-out elements, swallowed spiders, incinerated live stock,
gratuitous killing. And with all of this, tenderness and sometimes uproarious humor.
Eli and Charles Sisters are hit men in the employ of a shadowy San Francisco gang boss, The Commodore. He has given them an assignment. They are to find, torture and kill another employee of The Commodore who has gone rogue with a valuable secret that the torture is to
extort. The brothers, improbably, call the assignment a “mission”—in what the director seems to mean as a nod to Ethan Hawk and his colleagues. The brothers will be able to identify the rogue, understandably on the run, because he will be fingered by another employee of The
Commodore’s hirelings traveling with the intended victim.
As the plot twists and turns, the brothers, the rogue and the finger man become allies in an effort to use the secret to generate wealth that will permit them all to escape The Commodore and to found a utopian community in—of all places, Dallas.
Employing the secret has unforeseen, gruesome consequences, and triggers attacks by other minions of The Commodore. What with one thing and another the rogue and the finger man die and Charlie, the younger brother, loses an arm. The brothers decide that they will have to return to San Francisco and kill The Commodore. They get there to find him already dead.
So where’s the humor? It pops up in unexpected moments like the brothers’ encounter with toothpaste and indoor plumbing.
And the tenderness? In the course of things, we see the bond between the two brothers, and Eli’s unflagging devotion and commitment to protect Charlie. That commitment is grounded
in Charlie’s having killed their abusive father and in Eli’ s guilt about having failed to forestall that.
The Sisters Brothers‘ focus on parricide is unmistakable, and from a Freudian point of view, of interest. Two “fathers” are killed, the abusive parent of the protagonists and The Commodore. Although The Commodore is dead when the brothers arrive, Eli punches the corpse “to make sure”—and to atone for the passivity that forced Charlie’s hand. When the two brothers arrive at the family home and rejoin their widowed mother, the audience is left with a question. Will
they be equals, or given Charlie’s symbolic castration—loss of his gun hand—will Eli become the new patriarch. Your guess?