The Oregon Territory, 1851. Where helping one another remained as unfashionable and primitive as it does now, we find the Sisters siblings, Eli and Charlie (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix) in a gunfight with shadows under the veil of darkness. The blasts from their pistols briefly illuminate the pitch-black landscape before light surrenders again. The exchange ends quickly, Eli and Charlie surviving another job in their limitless mercenary journeywork, when they realize the adjacent ranch has caught ablaze. Eli, the sentimental, unabashedly optimistic one, attempts to save the barn’s stable of horses before the structure collapses. Charlie stands aside, berating his brother for wasting their time as the two return to their keeper, The Commodore (Rutger Hauer). They ride off, the burning wreckage of their work behind them. It’s a moment that recalls Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”, where the writer suggests that “death seemed the most prevalent feature of the landscape”. In Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers, death is unavoidable, unarrangable, and inconvenient, though attempts to find some measure of solace in a landscape that incinerates the spirit is positively vital, lest you thin away into oblivion.
The film’s tone and tenor is considerably less severe and more chill and mirthful than I describe, but I think you end up leaving The Sisters Brothers thinking a lot about imminent death and the silly preoccupations that can petrify us in our day-in-day-outs. Audiard, whose previous films have made notable, if not sometimes hasty, remarks on the frail, bipolar nature of masculinity, is in firm command of the material despite the shift in language and milieus. This is a film that thematically fits within his brand of harsh, though poetic, examinations of masculine ennui, somehow finding kindred spirits in Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts’ characters from Audiard’s 2012 film, Rust and Bone.
Following the film’s prelude, the brothers embark on a mission to San Francisco to find chemist-turned-gold prospector Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). During the height of the gold rush, Hermann has devised a chemical compound that illuminates gold from sediments when poured into a riverbed. Initially tailed and then joined by English detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), the two strike an unexpected friendship. As John puts it, until he met Hermann, he’d gone “35 years without a thought in his cylinders”. Their friendship makes him aware of a prejudice that has hindered his worldview for his lifetime. Hermann’s formula serves as an apt metaphor that informs the competing passages of the film, which amounts to a series of persuasive, thoughtful repartees on experience, legacies, greed, and happiness.
The salt and pepper moral compasses of the film’s numerous characters operate in contrast to Eli’s fundamental humanism. To see Reilly resembling something close to a leading man among this ensemble is a notable feat, and his character’s warmness brightens the picture through its darkest passages. And he takes what’s a fundamentally trite Western character – the aging gunman taking one last job before retiring – and injects him with a pedigree of insecurities and anxieties that elevate the character beyond caricature. As the narratives converge, with the Sisters confronting Hermann and John at a riverbed, it’s Eli’s humanism that reshape where the narrative is expected to go.
To describe The Sisters Brothers as a kind of subversive Western seems too simplistic; it does things that we would not necessarily expect yet remains entrenched in deeply literary modes of thought. In many ways, it reminded me of James Gray’s recent examination of masculine legacies, The Lost City of Z. Both films are prescient in their scrutiny of Man’s folly for legacy/wealth/greed. But whereas The Lost City of Z offers redemption for Man in exchange for life, Audiard suggests that one can survive the darkness and birth sunlight within their lifetime – redemption need not require an erasure of the future.