The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt – Western Wednesday Book (and film) Review – November

I am somewhat disappointed with this novel. I think it’s partly the ‘fault’ of all it’s publicity – I had high expectations for this relatively recently (2011) published and much praised “western.”

Recently I hurried to read The Sisters Brothers at last as I expected to watch the 2018 film version in the near future. (I’ve turned down a couple of opportunities to watch the film already because I wanted to read the book first.)

This book was easy to read fast – perhaps too easy to read fast. It’s pacing was very quick.

I have a strong suspicion that this book is very much a book that you need to find the right wavelength to enjoy it fully, and I just wasn’t on that wavelength. Given all the praise this book has garnered, however, I am considering I may read it again not too long from now to give it a second chance to dazzle me. I’ve read it has “multiple layers.” Maybe so. But if so, I didn’t see them this first time through.

A lot of people seem to find this a very funny book. I smiled a few times.

I found this novel had a quite surreal feel as we follow the two Sisters brothers through this story narrated by the slightly less enthusiastic killer of the two. He sometimes tries to do good deeds. The brothers are hired killers sent to find and kill a man, and along the way they have casual, often graphically violent and often gruesome encounters, including with a possible witch. Circumstances eventually require them to reconsider their relationship with each other and the world, although not before they leave a trail of bodies both human and animal in their wake.

Even in this rather appalling narrative “our hero” is relatively concerned for the care of animals, fitting into what I call the “don’t you whip that horse, mister” convention in westerns. In this book though, the care for our hero’s horse comes to include…um… a rather… primitive… attempt at corrective surgery.

I understand that sometimes fictional gruesome violence can be… quite funny, as well as horrific. And indeed, I sometimes find it so. I sometimes found it so here in this novel. But I also find that sometimes the creators of such fictional incidents take the depictions of gruesome past the plane at which I am comfortable uncomfortably flying at – to an altitude – or a depth – where it feels to me that they are just trying to be as gross as they can be, and the humour dissipates for me. Stay at that “okay, now it’s just gross” level for too long and you start to lose me. I know that everyone has their own ‘limits’ for such things, and some would argue it’s ‘the job’ of ‘the artist’ to push those limits, and that’s okay, carry on I guess, but it does not mean I am required to be entertained by it.

This novel went too far into casual grossness for me today. Perhaps another day, another mood, another reading, and I will reach a different conclusion about it.

Today I feel as though this book is more a western-flavoured horror-comedy-adventure story then a western, and it troubles me somewhat to see the “let’s add unnecessarily gruesome stuff to sell westerns” trend, which I have also seen in some relatively recent western films, here, being praised. But, I was raised on Hays code era films, and came to enjoy the western genre through more-or-less-Hays-era films, so my connection and understanding of modern and future tastes in western films and novels is admittedly perhaps at times a bit tenuous.

I admire a lot about this novel – some of the story-ideas are quite imaginative – when was the last time you encountered a wild west killer trying to keep on a slimming diet, for example? And there’s no question that the pace kept me moving right along even as I winced – but it’s not a novel I can see myself recommending widely, it’s just a little too gruesome.

Edited in December 2020 to add:

I have now watched 2018’s The Sisters Brothers film. I was pleasantly surprised by the choices it made and the directions it took from the original book – leaving behind a lot of the somewhat disgusting humour and almost entirely discarding the horse torture, as well as dropping a few other things in favour of telling a more straight forward tale. It actually turns out to be rather… nice, in the end. (Although it’s still rated R.) I’m a bit sad that the film appears to have bombed at the box office. The film has a bit of a different tone than the book, and perhaps this disappointed those who were real fans of the novel, but I think it made a perfectly decent and enjoyable modern western movie, (even if it was somewhat suspiciously made in large part by Frenchmen from a Canadian writer’s book and apparently filmed in Romania, France and Spain!) It may not have had enough production money to create the really spectacular action scenes some would have been expecting, either. But I consider it a solidly three-star experience, it won several Lumiere awards (they’re sort of the French equivalent to the Golden Globes) and the director won a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. John C. Reilly is solidly the heart of this film, while it took me several minutes to recognize Jake Gyllenhaal. The music is fun. I would recommend this film as a PVR watch or library borrow movie some time. I do not believe it bodes well that this film probably didn’t turn a profit. I would have gone to see it in theatres if I’d read the book by the time it was released and I’d probably have been satisfied. Ah well.

2 thoughts on “The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt – Western Wednesday Book (and film) Review – November”

  1. Thanks for your honest review, VT! I feel you are taking pains to be fair along with your honesty, and that’s a credit to your reviews.
    This is enough for me to know I won’t choose to read this book. I personally don’t care much for casual violence, let alone gruesome violence, especially in the pursuit of humor. In the movie, “True Lies” — which I enjoyed far more than I expected — I was turned off by a scene where people being accidentally mowed down by a falling machine gun, played for humor. Even though said mowed-down people were the bad guys.
    A gunslinger on a slimming diet reminds me of the old movie “Cat Ballou.” It was both a funny Western and sometimes a rather dark one — at least for the kid I was when I first saw it. It’s based on a serious Western novel, Wikipedia tells me.


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