Towards​ the end of Blade Runner the actor Rutger Hauer, playing a replicant whose programmed life is fading, says he has ‘seen things you people wouldn’t believe’. ‘All those moments,’ he adds, ‘will be lost in time, like tears in rain’: memory and knowledge, the replicant has understood, are part of what constitutes identity. The same actor makes what we might call a cameo disappearance in Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers. He lies dead in a coffin. Two of his former employees visit him and one of them punches the corpse in the face ‘just to make sure’. The undertakers close the coffin lid.

The man has spoken earlier in the plot of the film, but we have heard only reports of what he said, and we don’t know what he’s seen. We learn that he is called the Commodore, and that ‘he does business in every part of the country,’ which is America in the 19th century. The movie’s first location is Oregon City, 1851. In Patrick DeWitt’s novel, on which the movie is based, the man offers a leaky vision of greatness that could be seen as an authoritarian rendering of Hauer’s Blade Runner memory: ‘A great man is one who can pinpoint a vacuity in the material world and inject into this space an essence of himself.’ But he is talking to himself, and in the film we are not privy to his dreams.

The Sisters Brothers has been called ‘a comedic western’, and it’s true that we need some sort of adjective in front of the genre name. It’s also true that the movie is often funny. But the dominant mood is lyrical and brooding, devoted to slow, carefully composed shots of two men riding horses all day, never quite getting where they need to be. An incidental visual lesson, much insisted on, seems to be that real westerners always hold their horses’ reins with just one hand, and sit rather further back in the seat than can be comfortable. The West includes grasslands, rocky crags, forests, snow-capped mountains – all shot, apparently, as American dreams should be, in Spain and Romania. The brothers encounter cultural innovations that surprise them and move them: a toothbrush, a water closet. We see western towns being built, patches of desert turning into streets. San Francisco looks like a permanent luxurious fairground, and the brothers love everything about it.

‘I don’t think you and I have ever gone so far,’ the younger brother says at one point. The older one, thinking of his brother’s drinking and other antics, wonders what sort of metaphor he has in mind, but the first says he just meant going on in a straight line. Due west, in this case. In the next frame they are looking at the sea.

The brothers are Eli and Charlie, played by John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix. Reilly is also the producer of the work, having seen in DeWitt’s novel a starting point for the film. The screenplay is by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain. The performances of Reilly and Phoenix are amazing, and lead us back to the question of what kind of western this is. Eli is a variant on the Faulknerian idiot, apparently unlucky and ungraceful – the scene where a spider enters his mouth while he sleeps isn’t easy to forget – but also full of scrambled good sense and kindness. Charlie is a drinker and womaniser, desperately trying to be a hard man in the most conventional ways possible, but hampered by the touch of Dostoevskian darkness that Phoenix carries with him wherever he goes. Eli and Charlie quarrel mildly all the time, and once very violently, but they can’t do without each other, and Eli will always see Charlie through his worst moments – including, near the end, the amputation of his right arm. Not a good development for a gunslinger.

Gunslingers are what the brothers are, killers currently in the pay of the Commodore. The film opens with a botched job: too many people killed and perhaps not the right ones, and an accidental fire in a barn where the brothers’ horses flame and die. After this mess, the Commodore makes Charlie ‘the lead man’ and reduces Eli’s pay. This is because he hasn’t read enough Faulkner, or Cormac McCarthy, and doesn’t recognise the sanity that lies in bumbling. Initially it seems they are going to kill a man called Kermit Warm, very well acted by Riz Ahmed as a man who looks more helpless than he is. He is said to have stolen money from the Commodore. As long as this is the plot, we cross-cut between two stories: the brothers are looking for Warm, and Warm is travelling ahead of them with the man who is supposed to deliver him to the brothers. This is where the film gets slower than slow. The new man is John Morris, played by Jake Gyllenhaal as a sort of inward-looking twin to Joaquin Phoenix: Morris keeps a journal and uses long words. He is supposed to be a detective, and isn’t meant to do the killing himself.

But then the theft story is wrong. What the Commodore wants is Warm’s secret formula for identifying gold in a riverbed: it makes the metal gleam so the hard sifting job becomes easy. And Warm doesn’t just want to get rich, he wants to found a utopian community in Texas, following the ideas of Fourier and Saint-Simon. He converts Morris to his cause, and finally, after lots of gunfire, converts the brothers too. It’s clear that while killing seems to them a relatively honourable job, torturing a man to get something out of him is in a different category, and in the novel Charlie has a magnificent line even about the killing: ‘I have never minded cutting down the Commodore’s enemies much, brother. It always happens that they are repellent in one way or the other. Lesser villains, men without mercy or grace. But I do not like the idea of killing a man because of his own ingenuity.’

The formula-aided prospecting goes horribly wrong. Too eager and too clumsy, the men spill the chemicals everywhere, and wade in contaminated water. This is why Charlie’s arm has to be amputated; Morris and Warm have even less luck. A dire fable hangs in the air here, and I’m not sure how much attention Audiard wants us to pay to it. Is it to be glanced at and tucked away in the back of the mind, or is this where the movement of the film was leading? In the fable Warm is a benign but dangerous counterpart to the Commodore, like him seeking capital but for a noble anti-capitalist cause; his invention – a magical way of finding gold that leads to environmental and human damage – looks like an early, allegorised pathway for fracking.

Once the utopian dream is over, we return to practical matters. The hired killers still have to kill all the people the Commodore sends after them, and they do. Then one day, riding slowly across the landscape as they used to do, the brothers register a curious absence of enemies. ‘Have you noticed,’ Charlie says, ‘how long it’s been since anyone tried to kill us?’ The answer to the follow-up question – why this lull? – lies in the coffin.

We may have arrived at a possible response to the question about how to describe this oddly lyrical western. The boys go home to their mother, as if The Sisters Brothers was a tale about a family that went weirdly wrong and finally found its way back to simplicity. But the solution seems too precarious (or sentimental), and invites another thought. This is a western where the simplifications of the traditional form – the world as it was before the law and the railroad arrived, the time when we didn’t know who shot Liberty Valance – never really obtain. Memory and knowledge haunt all the characters, but they can do nothing with them. They are lost in time, and we see them getting lost, and learn something of what they are losing.

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