Films reflect reality, and, at the same time, they can also challenge it. Whether it be socially, politically, or artistically, the way a film is constructed and the stories they tell are all reflecting as well as critiquing the conditions of its creators. Even if the filmmakers are not thinking about the influence of their work, it can have an unintentional effect on the status quo. An easy way to understand this is by looking at a film from the larger perspective of its genre. A new film that fits some of the tropes of a western film would be classified as such by audiences, but beyond just this it would also be placed within the larger canon of the western. Does the film fit the genre? Is it something else under the guise of a western? Or is it a commentary on the social ideas that genres perpetuate? Jacques Audiard’s 2018 film The Sisters Brothers is a film that can both aesthetically be a western while still critiquing the problematic norms that the genre has established. Particularly, the film challenges the masculinity that is so intrinsic to the genre.
The Western Genre & Masculinity
The western genre has a deep history with masculinity, shaping its characteristics throughout the years even. From its beginning as a literary genre in the 19th century, it has revolved around stories of the “Old West,” or rather the myth around it. The region and time period that are the focus of these stories are depicted as very cruel and unforgiving, meaning that the heroes protecting communities and progress must themselves enact this same cruelty to survive, lowering themselves to the killers they fight. Additionally, while they protect the traditional frontier life, they do not fit into it. Like the villains who are obstacles to “Manifest Destiny” and violate whatever social structures exist, the heroes are similarly lawless in their pursuit of justice. Though they protect the sanctity of new Americans, they cannot be reined in and domesticated like the common man or woman.
The frontier is filled with Europeans creating a new America, distancing themselves from the past, and establishing a new country that focuses on the individual. An aspect of this new individualism is the imperative certain figures feel to not be constrained by this new society. These are the characters who become the outlaws, prodding at civilization, and the cowboys who simultaneously protect civilization while distancing themselves from it. This reveals one of the main paradoxical elements of the western: the protagonist hero/cowboy must squash the outlaws, the Native-Americans, and the corrupt landowners, but in doing so they partake in the same activities that they condemn. Masculinity comes into play here because these heroes and the villains they oppose are ends of the same coin, and both operate on manliness run rampant. Heroes are counteracting the killers of men, by themselves becoming killers of men. Traditionally this fault is overlooked as the morals of the heroes are relative to the villains who are cartoonishly evil; no matter the circumstances surrounding the protagonists’ violence, they are positioned as righteous and justified. The fallacy directly connects to masculinity because the hero is someone who is supposed to be smooth and not bring emotion into conflicts, but when they are reckless and shoot first, ask questions later, they are anything but the masculinity they are meant to embody. Something that revisionist westerns like The Sisters Brothers do is highlight and question this fallacy and the masculine identity of its protagonist.
The Sisters Brothers follows two brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters, as they come to see the reality of the world they helped to create. Both are tasked to take a recipe for finding gold from a man named Warm, and another man named Morris is supposed to help them, but quickly Morris and Charlie become enamored with Warm’s idea of an egalitarian society and decide to work with him. Eli’s delusion ultimately destroys their plan and kills Warm and Morris and gets his own arm removed. One of the reasons that the film is so effective in deconstructing its masculine protagonist is that there is no single protagonist, and only Warm could be seen as a real hero figure who strives for justice. It is the relationships between these four characters and the diversity of their masculine performances that push a narrative in which the tired masculinity of the genre is futile, and the masculinity of the future is one that is empathetic and sensitive.
Eli embodies the masculine stereotype of the western, reckless, and violent. It is this recklessness that ultimately kills Morris and Warm, the less traditionally masculine characters that are also resisting a society of individuals and are instead looking to create an egalitarian society. Following their death and the loss of Eli’s arm, a symbolic castration, Eli feels what it is like to be vulnerable and need help, in this case the help of his brother Charlie. Through the film Charlie has been revealing himself to be a lot less like his brother and more akin to Warm, excited by the prospect of a toothbrush, and mournful over the loss of his horse, and in the last bit of the film where Eli can no longer fight, he comes around to these less traditionally masculine ideas as well. The end of the film sees the two return to their mother’s home. She initially draws a gun on the two, but quickly puts it away when she sees it is her children. It was finally after Eli saw his new reality that he was able to truly understand the concerns of his brother, and the two retreated toward the domestic, the nurturing, the feminine.
Tropes in the Western Genre
Modern westerns in the many years since the genre’s inception are aware of its conventions, and its history of misdeeds. Revisionist westerns have long been critiquing these aspects of the western, but all have fallen into some of the trapping inherent to the genre, such as the necessity of the phallic gun to save the day in the end. Westerns critique this trope but still rely on and justify it continually, just as The Sisters Brothers ends with a renegotiation of this idea. By presenting its titular characters as satisfied in the moments where the gun is absent, the film erases the need for this extension of the man to exist. Instead, he can feel at ease with the world around him. The film shines a harsh light on the western and the overtly masculine figures who call it home, ultimately revealing that they are the ones serving as obstacles to the freedom they espouse.