The story of America is the story of modernity. This wide North American continent, at least since its discovery by Europeans, has been in many ways the laboratory of the Enlightenment: the land of self-reliance, fortune, and individual opportunity, if you can seize it. America has always been the setting for the old world to come crashing into conflict with the new. Inevitably, individuals see opportunity in the wreckage. That is perhaps why American stories—particularly those set in the West—are so often filled with idealists and opportunists in equal measure: cowboys and saloon owners, philosophers and con men.
The Western genre, then, necessarily must confront the forces of change and modernity: the modernizing unity of railroads, the cohabitation (or conflict) between colonizer and colonized, the distance between the hard world and the individual’s moral code. This is the template for the standard Western: the upstanding John Wayne-type standing sentinel against the wild and uncivilized world.
The 21st century Western has largely spent its time deconstructing these tropes. These films, unlike their 20th century predecessors, have little time for such stark dichotomies. Instead, they wish to live in the moral complexity, exploring interior conflict. Alongside other deconstructions such as James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Coen brothers’ Westerns have especially thrived under this revival, giving their characters deep moral and spiritual dilemmas as they face unknowable evil and a changing and frightful world.
Jacques Audiard’s 2018 film The Sisters Brothers is unlike these others, and indeed somewhat more straightforward in its approach. The Sisters Brothers has little interest in interiority. Instead, the film lives in a conflict born of constantly dueling notions: civilization’s essentially failed attempt to tame the wild, the animal impulse’s struggle against the rational impulse, the impossibility of the dream when faced with reality. The film’s characters face dilemmas, but remain steadfast in their natures and always behave predictably, to devastating moral effect. In this way, The Sisters Brothers is about the political ramifications of opportunity itself, and the impossibility of high-minded virtue in a harsh and brutal world. The film instead argues towards a subtler acceptance of the world as it is: an understanding of the brutality of life and a mediation of suffering in the small comforts that the world allows.
Toward this notion, the California Gold Rush is almost too neat a metaphor on its face. The story of greed and opportunity, promise and wealth—in short, the story of a new beginning on the West Coast—is itself too easy as a fable. Moreover, the animating object of the film’s plot is a technological advance that both operates and appears as moralistic magic. Spelled this way, the plot is comically simple: Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) has invented a magic formula to easily detect and find gold, and a mysterious rich man named the Commodore has hired the Sisters brothers to kill him and take the formula.
As a character, Warm is somewhat loosely sketched, much like the other three in the film’s primary quartet. (Indeed, Warm operates mostly as a type of MacGuffin in the Patrick deWitt novel on which the film is based, only appearing briefly for a few scenes.) But Ahmed endears the character with a deeply rooted idealism and love for humanity. After he is caught by private detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), Warm convinces Morris to let him go by appealing to the man’s dignity, asking Morris to imagine the Sisters brothers torturing him and killing him. As Morris searches for the words to explain his reasoning and defend his morality, Warm sighs, “it’s this world. It’s an abomination. An abomination.”
Morris himself shares a sort of educated sympathy with Warm from the start. Morris believes himself to be a thoughtful and righteous man, a noble adventurer, and he writes frequently in his journal, quoting Henry David Thoreau and reflecting on the philosophical nature of his attempts to lure Warm into trusting him. However, after freeing the man and discovering the nature of his formula and its power, Morris is shaken. Upon realizing how close he was to delivering this man unto torture and death at the hand of the Sisters brothers, Morris confesses that his entire life, his entire motivation for his action has come from his hate of his father. Now, that meaning has been stripped away, and Morris confesses: “I’m 35 years old and my life is like an empty cylinder.”
Warm and Morris perfectly compliment each other because of this essential contrast: whereas Morris finds himself bereft of meaning, Warm is idealistic and full of both the drive to change his society and the means to do so via his formula. Soon after his alliance with Morris, Warm describes the utopian future he hopes to create: “For me the gold is just a stepping stone…To found a new society. One that will consecrate itself not to profit or gold, but its spiritual development, its own subsistence, nothing more, the education of its children.” Together, Warm and Morris represent a sort of uniquely 19th century utopianism: a belief that the mechanisms of modernity can work to free humanity from its basest impulses for profit and greed and redirect civilization towards the spiritual and communal good.
The Sisters brothers, then, are the angels of death. Throughout the film, they pursue Warm (and eventually both Warm and Morris) on the orders of the Commodore. Like their targets, the brothers, too, are a study in contrasts: Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) is a brutal and hedonistic man, beholden to only his basest impulses towards greed, violence, and drunkenness. Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) is a reluctant enabler of his brother’s havoc. Having been swept up into the whirlwind created by his brother, he constantly implores Charlie to give up their mercenary profession and instead attempt to make an honest living. Eli is the true sympathetic character of the film, pulled along into the violence and chaos of the world simply out of the love he feels for his brother. Eli says later that Charlie acquired his violent tendencies after killing their abusive father, and Eli is continually wracked with regret that he did not act to kill his father instead. Together, the two brothers are ruthless gunmen and a comically unstoppable force, overcoming bear attacks, poisonous spider bites, ambushes, and Charlie’s frequent drunkenness to continue pursuing Warm and Morris.
Once the brothers catch up with Warm and Morris, it is somewhat predictable that their greed and opportunism trumps their loyalty to the Commodore’s mission. Learning of Warm’s formula and the potential it contains for unimaginable riches, the brothers help the two men dam up the river and prepare to test the formula’s ability to find gold. At first, it seems possible that they might get along, as Eli and Warm bond over Eli’s deeply felt tragedy and Charlie and Morris trade barbs while swimming in the river. At the close of the day, with the sun beginning to set, the brothers reflect on their future, understanding that the Commodore will continue to send men after them until they inevitably kill him. As night begins to fall and the time to test the formula approaches, Audiard dwells in this quiet moment in which the brothers realize their nature is immutable and that even the future life they imagine contains a seemingly endless string of violence.
The formula’s immediate power is clear on the night of their first test. As Warm and Morris agitate the water, the camera cuts to a shot looking straight down into the river, where the chemical begins to work and each piece of gold begins to glint into light. Once the river floor illuminates, each piece an incandescent speck in a field of glowing stars throughout the water, we hear the men’s giddy laughs. As they pick up their buckets and fish out the illuminated pieces, wincing as the formula stings their skin, the gold also twinkles in their eyes. The men quickly run out of the water to apply lotion to soothe the chemical burns, but hurry back to the water each time, the glint of opportunity—or greed—driving them back to the riverbed of illuminated gold pieces.
The giddy feel of the scene turns as the illumination fades. Eli has to beckon Charlie out of the water, as Charlie begins to panic when he realizes the formula is wearing off. Alexandre Desplat’s score begins to pulse and ring as Charlie’s greed brings him back to the formula. The three other men, wading in the water, see Charlie carry the formula back to the dam, and scream at him to stop. Charlie pours the substance into the river, covering his arm. Morris trips and is submerged in the poisonous water, and Warm dives in to catch him. Eli goes to help Charlie, and Warm and Morris struggle to leave the chemical-laden water. Ending the night’s horrors, Audiard cuts to the river in the morning light; downstream from the dam, the water is full of dead bears and fish, floating at the surface. The camera pans over Morris and Charlie, the men’s chemical burns harsh in the bright day.
Unlike a more typical Western, the climax of The Sisters Brothers does not contain a gunfight. The casualties are self-inflicted, the product of each character’s immutable nature: Charlie’s greed, Eli’s enabling of his brother, Morris’ ambition and desire for good, Warm’s idealistic generosity toward his fellow man. As Warm succumbs to the injuries he sustained from the formula, Morris kills himself to end the agony of the chemical burns. The modern magic of Warm’s formula—and the utopian society it was to help him create—is thus snuffed out by the same greed he hoped to eradicate.
In a frequently quoted phrase from A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway writes, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” The Sisters brothers—from the abuse their father rained down upon them to the violence they encounter from day to day to their experience that night in the river—are survivors, forces of brutal nature that embody the harsh world that made them. In this way, the film is fatalistic, asserting that the encroachment of civilization into the American West itself requires a knowledge that the wildness always wins out, and our utopian dreams will always be broken by the world.
The glow in the water—the hope that the world might be able to change, via technology, or modernity, or human kindness—may be an illusion, but the film does not foreclose on the notion of hope entirely. After Charlie’s chemically burned arm is amputated, the brothers begin to experience what they predicted: a stream of men sent to kill them by the Commodore. After fighting off each prospective assassin for a period of time, they are surprised when the assassins stop. They soon learn that the Commodore has died, and they visit the body, raining blows down upon him in the casket.
The final scene finds the brothers returning to their homestead, seeking out their mother. She immediately shoots at them in the bright morning light, suspicious of their motives. Yet even these brothers, products of the abusive home they emerged from, now return to this home as a place of refuge, understanding the world as having let them survive, for now.