The Sisters Brothers
As American as apple pie, topped with French mousse
Deep in the Oregon wilderness, Eli Sisters (played by John C. Reilly) sleeps on a cold ground a moonlit sky. He lays on his back with his mouth agap, snoring lightly. A spider fill the frame. The spider appears gargantuan and vile. We cut to a wider shot and realize the spider is really only the size of a quarter, though this revelation hardly lessens the tension. After a pregnant pause, the spider skitters up the man’s jacket, onto his face, then crawls down his mouth. Without waking, Eli swallows. He continues to sleep.
We cut to the next morning. Eli’s brother, Charlie (played by Joaquin Phoenix), comes to wake him and we see the results: Eli’s neck and face are grotesquely swollen. Charlie laughs and teases him, but Eli complains of feeling cold and unwell. The scene is darkly funny. Despite Charlie’s comedic reaction, the scene cuts to reveal how precarious Eli’s predicament is. Shivering uncontrollably and drenched by a torrential downpour, Eli has to huddle underneath a makeshift cover and suffer, his life hanging precariously in the balance. Just as soon, a third cut reveals Eli’s fate. A few days puking up blood and Eli ultimately pulls through.
This is not our first indicator that the American West of Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers contains beautiful dualities. We should have known from the scene that opens the film, which places the bounty hunter Sisters brothers in a shootout with the deafening crackle of gunfire ( reminiscent of the authentically loud gunfire in Michael Mann’s Heat) splitting the emptiness of the Oregon prairie. The scene is punctuated by the jarring image of a sprinting horse, it’s back aflame. Realizing a barn is on fire and the horses inside will die, Eli risks his own life to save them as Charlie watches, screaming to his brother not to be stupid.
The Sisters then set out on a new mission, to meet up with the tracker, John Morris (Jake Gylenehaal), who is on the trail of a prospector named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed). Their hunt takes them through the wilderness, into backwater towns controlled by raccoon-hatted thugs, and into San Francisco. Eventually, they learn that Warm has developed a chemical technique to illuminate gold in rivers, thus making it simpler to prospect for it, and Morris has joined him. When they catch up with Warm and Morris, more dualities play out - as things go from serene to terrifying.
This American West is a place where natural beauty cannot survive the coming of people as people cannot change their basic instincts. Despite discovering an ideal sort of condition prospecting in the California forest, the Sisters, like human beings are wont to do, find a way to infringe and then destroy it. As much as people value the natural beauties of the world, Audiard says we are destined to waste them through greed or, more tragically, idealistic progress.
The Sister Brothers bears all the hallmarks of an American-as-apple-pie film genre co-opted by a European. The Frenchman Audiard manages to honor not only traditional westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but classic subversions of the form like The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Yet in parallel, Audiard manages a more neat trick by pulling from modern westerns, as well. It pulls visual influences from The Assassination of Jesse James as well as tonal ones from the Coen Brothers’ folky True Grit.
The result is a western entirely one-of-a-kind.