Ms. Amelia Partridge is never seen at any point during the 122 minute runtime of Jacques Audiard’s 2018 wistful comedy-western The Sisters Brothers, but her presence looms large for one particular character in this film based on Patrick Dewitt’s 2011 novel of the same name.
The year is 1851. Hired assassins Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) Sisters are sent on a cross country mission by their employer “The Commodore” to kill chemist Herman Kermitt Warm (Riz Ahmed) and retrieve his precious gold-mining formula.
It’s unclear how long the brothers have been plying their dangerous trade on the dusty American plains, but it’s evidently long enough to have established a fearful reputation that precedes their every arrival like an ominous silent messenger. Saloons are kept empty while the brothers talk business, and even when outnumbered, enemy posses are wary of their chances against these seemingly imperishable gunslingers.
The brothers bicker and are constantly trading both verbal and physical blows often testing each other’s loyalty while vying for superiority in the sibling pecking order. Eli is the elder brother but Charlie is the one with the ambition and venomous blood-lust, making him the favoured “lead-man” by The Commodore for this mission. However, Charlie’s drinking makes him dangerously unpredictable – a fact Eli is all too painfully aware of and which prompts his need to keep this behaviour in check as best an elder brother can.
Charlie is convinced that the skills for their chosen line of work are inherited: “Our father was stark raving mad and we’ve got his foul blood in our veins. The blood was his gift to us — that’s why we’re good at what we do.” Eli senses their father’s self-destructive tendencies poses more of a threat to both of them; a poisoned chalice passed down for which the only possible end is a bloody and merciless death.
This notion of foul blood, violence and inheritance is a theme echoed in the film’s use of colour. The saturated earthy tones used for most settings and costumes are punctuated by the distinct use of red for both brothers in very different ways.
Once on the trail of Warm, and aided by tracker John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) – who is also in the employ of The Commodore – the hot-headed Charlie wears a striking red shirt, symbolic perhaps of the red mist that clouds his judgement but directs his focussed action.
Eli on the other hand, seems forever a reluctant henchman. A sullen-faced assassin begrudgingly keeping watch over his wayward brother with 6-shooters as flyswatters; batting away those that wish to hurt them both, while ratcheting up a body count that would make satan blush.
Eli simply wants out.
At every rest-stop, either camped beneath the open sky or bunked down in a one-horse town, he keeps close a red shawl gifted to him by the unseen presence of schoolteacher Ms. Amelia Partridge. The care and reverence with which Eli folds, smells and caresses the sash before bedding down speaks of a man yearning for peace, of a home and of a normal life. It’s a bone of contention between the brothers and a source of ridicule which Charlie relentlessly uses to taunt Eli.
Charlie fears the settled life, as his only reference point is that of his parent’s own disastrous attempt. Eli yearns for it as a means of redemption.
In one scene, the brothers rest up in a brothel and Eli earnestly asks his chosen prostitute to re-enact the moment Ms. Partridge gifted him the sash, irritably correcting the woman to ensure the ritual is done properly. Sternly but with sadness in his eyes he says: “Look at it, like it means something. Give it with a kind word”, to which the prostitute duly complies and then responds “You’re kind and gentle and I’m not used to it”, before sending him away.
The harshness and unrelenting brutality of a life spent either running toward or away from danger is a familiar thread weaving through the western genre – especially when focussing on the mythic outlaw, but what Audiard’s film (and Dewitt’s book) do so well is to remind us of the quiet desperation of those caught up in the whirlwind, who simply wish to shelter from the storm.