Home Comforts & Guilty Consciences in The Sisters Brothers & The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs
Posted on April 25, 2019
Companion Pieces is a new series of 10-15 minute reads exploring cinematic and literary parallels. In this first instalment, I explore the links between Patrick deWitt’s novel The Sisters Brothers, Jacques Audiard’s recent film adaptation of the same name and the Coen brothers’ The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. Taken together, these three journeys through the American west reveal how greed, grief and a guilty conscience can be soothed by the simple comforts of family, friendship and home. But the question of what lies beyond their collection of ironic deaths can only be answered by the Coens.
Patrick deWitt’s 2011 Booker shortlisted novel The Sisters Brothers is both a western adventure and a crime caper. Two accomplished killers, the Sisters brothers, travel from Oregon to California with instructions to murder a red-bearded prospector and supposed thief named Hermann Kermit Warm.
Their journey involves many chance encounters with strange and tragic figures, setting up mysteries that are never resolved. In a landscape soaked in killing and death, the first of these characters, the ‘weeping man’, seems to embody the grief of the entire American west. The precise source of his suffering is never revealed but the book’s narrator, Eli Sisters, believes it has ‘made him insane’.
Reading the novel’s peculiar chance encounters, my mind turned to the cruel and strange western landscapes of the Coen brothers’ True Grit. The minds behind Fargo and The Big Lebowski have often incorporated western tropes in their work but True Grit marked an overt and uncharacteristically straight foray into the genre. The film’s plot is remarkably faithful to the simple revenge story of Charles Portis’ source novel, but the addition of a scavenging medicine man – donned in a bear skin and emerging like an absurd predatory animal from the snowy vista with the decomposing body of an unknown man – underlines the distorted values of the west. “I will entertain an offer for the rest of him” says the wanderer. The human body is a commodity and one man’s loss is another’s gain.
Like the films of the Coens, The Sisters Brothers is soaked in a bleak, tragicomic sensibility. The novel’s brief encounters are injected with irony and wry observations; its supporting characters are often the victims of simple bad luck. When the Sisters brothers, Eli and Charlie, spend the night in a witch’s cabin Eli dreams that the old woman is pouring a ‘heavy black liquid’ into the mouth of his brother, Charlie. The next morning, the witch is gone but a strange string of beads is left hanging above the door. Fearing a curse, the brothers refuse to pass beneath it. This choice results in the slaughter of five men when Charlie Sisters climbs out of the cabin’s small window and attempts to steal their axe to make a larger opening for his brother. For these dead men it is a simple case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Coens would make their own ruthless journey across the American west in the 2018 film, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. This, a collection of six unrelated stories tied together by the turning pages of a western adventure book, feels like an accidental, spiritual relative of The Sisters Brothers sharing not only its tone and atmosphere but many of its themes.
Both share a similar cast of ne’er-do-wells. There are robbers and swindlers and bounty hunters; trappers and chancers and prospectors. Each of the film’s six stories gives us just enough to satisfy our curiosity and build a potent impression of grief, anguish and (sometimes) hope. Like deWitt, the Coens encourage us to sympathise with their eclectic characters before fate often deals them a cruel blow. The absence of obvious connections and ‘back stories’ conjures the spirit of a journey filled with such fleeting encounters and, added together, the stories are much bigger than the sum of their parts.
“People are like ferrets or a beaver, all pretty much alike” says the loquacious trapper in the Ballad’s final segment The Mortal Remains. But the trapper’s listeners do not agree and instead set about a process of binary categorisation: “lucky and unlucky“, “hale and frail”, “townsman and trapper”, “upright and sinning”.
The chance encounters in Patrick deWitt’s novel add up to a bleak and tragic picture of the American west but this is drawn out and embodied in the characterisation of the contrasting brothers. While Eli can be hot tempered, he is also kind and generous, desiring little more than intimacy and home comforts. Charlie, by comparison, is trigger happy, impressed by power and money and ‘too lazy to be good’. ‘Our blood is the same,’ says Eli, ‘we just use it differently’.
While Charlie is out finding the axe to help Eli escape the witches cabin, Eli actually passes beneath the witches beads to save his horse from a bear attack. ‘It occurred to me,’ admits Eli later, ‘that I had crossed the threshold for a horse I did not want to save but Charlie had not done the same for his own flesh and blood’. The mysterious encounter is echoed in two otherworldly ‘Intermissions’ later in the novel, that suggest Eli’s good deed has left him ‘protected’ and Charlie cursed.
In his 2019 adaptation of deWitt’s novel, Jaques Audiard omits these peculiar supernatural events but homes in on the tangible differences between the brothers. Each scene works to compare and contrast them, exploring the fraternal bond that ties them together. Audiard’s is an affectionate take on the men, a warm tale of brotherly love overcoming all obstacles.
Audiard opens by establishing the brothers’ confused morality, setting up a redemptive journey. After shooting their way through a house full of men Eli (John C. Reilly) runs into a burning stable to rescue his horse but returns empty handed. When he asks Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), rather remorsefully, “How many do you think we killed?”, it is unclear whether he’s referring to the men or the horses.
We first meet the novel’s Eli similarly tormented by the death of his horse in a barn fire at the end of their previous job:
“I was very fond of my previous horse and lately had been experiencing visions while I slept of his death, his kicking, burning legs, his hot popping eyeballs.”
Eli is given a replacement horse, a slow and overweight animal already named Tub, in partial payment for this work. This ‘trouble with the horses’ cleverly sets up Eli’s emotional journey – his reluctant but burgeoning relationship with Tub echoes his moral growth – and establishes a power imbalance between the brothers. Charlie takes the better horse and, along with his recent promotion to ‘lead man’, this threatens to fracture the brothers’ relationship.
That this ‘adventure’ arrives at the end of the brothers’ career amplifies its melancholy and allows deWitt to consider the role of choice, genetics and upbringing in the brothers’ current lifestyle. In drawing this out, Audiard makes much of the brothers’ relationship with their father. Charlie asks Eli if he is worried about “passing it on”, by which he means their father’s violence. This thread is echoed in newly invented conversations between Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) and the brothers’ scout, Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), about their own fathers.
Both the novel and its film adaptation are a journey home. It is their violence that prevents the brothers from returning to their mother, who will not have them until they have given up their grisly careers. Instead Eli searches for home comforts in the arms of women, refusing to pay for their company and instead winning their affection with kindness. He tries to change his appearance by brushing his teeth and losing weight. In Audiard’s film this sophistication ties him to the reformed and altruistic Morris.
The comfort provided by human intimacy is also a recurring theme in the Coen’s The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. In the segment Near Algodones a bank robber who has already cheated death once before looks upon a pretty girl before he is hanged. Later, in The Gal Who Got Rattled, marriage and companionship offer an escape from a life of hardship, loneliness and fear. That these comforts are snatched away from the characters in ironic twists of fate and luck, makes Ballad a near agonising experience. ‘Here is another miserable mental image I will have to catalogue and make room for,’ says the novel’s Eli on abandoning a malnourished urchin in a dead prospectors tent. Viewers of The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs may be inclined to agree with him. Many of the images it presents are truly wretched, the very worst of humanity and cruel fate.
But the Coens’ twists are more than mere stylistic inflections, revealing truths about the human experience. The Gal Who Got Rattled explores the old adage that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, while the inscrutable traveller in Meal Ticket exposes our reluctance to accept and face human suffering. In this, the film’s most troubling segment, a quadriplegic orator (Harry Melling) is thrown over a ravine by his coachman and carer (Liam Neeson) when the audiences for his gloomy performances start to wane. He is replaced by the popular but intellectually bankrupt animal act, the ‘chicken pythagorean’. Both of these segments explore the struggles of dependents, one that similarly emerges through the women and children of deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers.
Much can be gleaned by the Coens’ choice of songs and poems. The material of the quadriplegic orator, which includes Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 and Shelley’s Ozymandias, drags us deep into his despair:
“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope”
His nightly performances are repeated in montage but their delivery becomes more impassioned when the orator is denied the intimacy of a female companion. In the cruel American west, such a connection is a rare and exquisite comfort.
If Eli Sisters has accepted the nourishing value of human intimacy, Charlie is still on a quest for gold and glory. The plot of The Sisters Brothers is caught up in the avarice of the gold rush, something the Coens’ similarly explore in the Ballads’ prospector segment All Gold Canyon. Here man plunders nature for financial gain, bringing violence and brutality into the calm and tranquil natural world; the ‘mighty sweep of earth’ where there was no trace of man. The ageing prospector is one of the film’s few characters to escape a cruel twist of fate, but it spells disaster for the natural landscape. The Sisters brothers own experiment with prospecting has devastating consequences for wildlife and the slaughter of a red-backed bear for the price placed on its pelt establishes a poignant connection with their red-bearded bounty, Hermann Kermit Warm.
From the outset of his film adaptation, Audiard intercuts the action of the Sisters brothers with the action of Warm and their scout Morris. This solves a potential problem with the novel’s structure and point of view, which holds back the action relating to Warm and Morris until the final third (where the discovery of a journal illuminates it in flashback). This restructuring allows Audiard (who writes with long-time collaborator Thomas Bidegain) to expand the story of Morris and Warm and they use it to develop the novel’s subplot in which they embark on a prospecting gambit of their own. Audiard even invents a new motivation for this scheme: part of a much greater plan to start an ‘ideal society’. It is a romantic, near communist response to the west’s cruel and violent capitalism.
In Audiard’s adaptation, the randomness of the novel’s chance encounters are rather weakly fashioned into a cause and effect plot that is, at times, hard to follow. Yet the film’s additions also work to highlight the novel’s essential themes, pushing the brothers homeward. This final act, in which the brothers join forces with Morris and Warm, is infused with the friendship, kindness and intimacy they have been searching for. Audiard conjures a final image so pure in its emotional truth that any fears we might have about their future dissolves into their embrace.
The Coens leave their six stories, and their thematic connections, open to audience interpretation. The film becomes our journey through the American west and, like Eli Sisters, we must reluctantly accept the cruelty of circumstance. There are many kinds of death says Eli:
‘Quick death, slow death. Early death, late death. Brave death, cowardly death.’
We find all of them in The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. Likewise, ‘True Grit,’ says Adam Nayman in his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties The Film Together, ‘is filled with corpses in various states of decay’. The religious (and litigious) motivations of 14 year old Mattie Ross pervade that earlier western. But, perhaps too afraid to consider the prospect of heaven and hell – or too guilty to consider their victims’ fates – the Sisters brothers attempt to stave off their own mortality with superstition. In their final segment of The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, the Coens take us beyond death’s final curtain revealing what happens after the lethal pressing of the trigger.
Ballad is bookended by transitions into the afterlife. Singing cowboy Buster Scruggs gains his wings, ascending to the heavens in the film’s first segment. Its last, titled The Mortal Remains, works both literally as a philosophical conversation between stagecoach passengers and metaphorically, as purgatory. This latter interpretation is underlined by the advancing sunset; the darkness bringing with it a sense of claustrophobia and dread borrowed from the horror genre. The coach driver, who will not “slow”, is eerily reminiscent of the grim reaper; death of course waits for no man.
In this light, the passengers’ conversation is particularly poignant. A bounty hunter describes his fondness for witnessing the moment of death, watching as the dying man tries to ‘make sense of it’. ‘Do they ever?’ asks one of the passengers, ironically unaware they are already dead. As the coach stops and the passengers disembark in the darkness, their reluctance to cross the threshold suggests they may finally understand their fate. The visual and tonal contrast with Scrugg’s slapstick comedy, clichéd ascent and upbeat song, When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings, is formidable. The film has taken us on a journey through the cruel American west and heaven is a distant memory.