Periods, Pregnancy and the Soul of Time: Saint Frances and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood

When the Academy rejected an advertising spot for Frida Mom’s postpartum products during this year’s Oscars ceremony, it felt like a double blow. Just a year on from the Best Short win by Period. End Of Sentence, not only was the Academy accused of snubbing female directors, but now it appeared to censor the depiction of female stories in wider culture too. Frida’s chief executive officer, Chelsea Hirschhorn, told the New York Times the Academy had suggested dropping the realistic advert of a mother struggling to use a peri bottle to clean herself after urinating, for a “kinder, more gentle portrayal of postpartum.” 

But filmmakers like Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan are not dissuaded by squeamish attitudes towards the female body. Their feature film debut, Saint Frances, depicts the bloody, messy reality of female life, from menstruation and period sex to abortion. Bridget (O’Sullivan) is a single, thirty-something babysitter living in a rented apartment. “I’m not an impressive person,” she confesses. Her life has no direction and time is running out, something that’s underlined by the film’s elliptical storytelling; we only see Bridget when she’s bleeding.

Bridget Saint Frances Kelly O'Sullivan
Kelly O’Sullivan in Saint Frances

“The time span of a woman’s life is about thirty years,” writes author Sheila Heti in her semi-fictitious novel, Motherhood, “Apparently, during these thirty years – fourteen to forty-four – everything must be done. She must find a man, make babies, start and accelerate her career… Thirty years is not enough time to live a whole life!” Like Saint Frances, Heti’s novel progresses to the rhythms of the female body – with chapters titled ‘bleeding’, ‘ovulating’ and ‘PMS’ – in a such a way that the female body seems to become time itself. “I think ‘the soul of time’ is a pretty accurate way of describing PMS,” she writes, “It’s not just a metaphor. It IS the soul of time. That’s why it’s so unpleasant.”

Also in her mid thirties, Heti’s narrator is deciding whether or not to have children; a struggle characterised as ‘Jacob Wrestling the Angel’, an Old Testament story about the conflict between body and soul. For the women in Motherhood and Saint Frances, the desires of the heart and mind are at odds with their biology. Bridget is pregnant but wants an abortion: her biological clock might be ticking but the timing isn’t right. Meanwhile the body of Heti’s narrator wants her to become a mother in spite of her palpable objections. “Why is my body doing this inside me every month?” writes Heti, “How neglected and abandoned is this little animal inside me that is doing its work so diligently and so well – this tiny uterus, these mushy ovaries, these fallopian tubes and my brain. It has no idea I need nothing from it. It just keeps on working. If only I could talk to it and tell it to stop.” 

This idea is exquisitely captured in the anthropomorphic, stop motion wombs of (feminine hygiene company) Bodyform’s new #WombStories advertising campaign. The animation is contrasted with live action scenes that reveal the effect of the wombs on the women they inhabit, bringing the very contrast between body and soul into sharp focus. Women have erupted in support of the short film: the physical inconvenience of menstruation, hinted at in most conventional adverts, is only the tip of the iceberg.

Bodyform’s #WombStories short film

Heti’s narrator, for instance, is in the thrall of PMS, while Bridget’s employer, Maya (Charin Alvarez), sinks beneath the tide of postpartum depression. But how can a women figure out what to do with her life when she can no longer trust her emotions? “I began thinking about the soul of time as having something to do with cocoons,” writes Heti, “I recently learned that what happens in a cocoon is not that a caterpillar grows wings and turns into a butterfly. Rather, the caterpillar turns to mush. It disintegrates, and out of this mush a new creature grows”. But, “Why does no-one talk about the mush?” she asks, “Or about how, for any change to happen, we must for some time be nothing – be mush. That is where you are right now – in a state of mush.” 

Negotiating these transitions is made harder by societal pressures that close off avenues for honest conversation. Pressure from social media and wannabe grandparents haunt the background of Saint Frances where failure to make it as an “impressive person” provokes scorn from even her female peers. While an extreme close up of a woman’s “Unborn Lives Matter” slogan intrudes on Bridget’s point of view, the boyfriend of Heti’s narrator argues that other mothers, “want you to be in the same boat they’re in. They want you to have the same handicap they have… He called it the biggest scam of all time.”

It’s this pressure to become parents that the directionless, thirty-something couple in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young finally surrender to. But by prescribing only one way to grow up, Baumbach’s resolution seems a misstep. By contrast, the protagonists in Motherhood and Saint Frances push against society’s control of their bodies, asserting the freedom of choice.

Naomi Watts While We're Young
Naomi Watts in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young

Indeed, both Heti and O’Sullivan’s characters find solace in talking openly, negotiating the potential scorn of other mothers to find safe spaces with like-minded women. Saint Frances plays like an anthem for female friendship, communication and support while, for Heti, it’s the acceptance of equality between all women – those who choose children and those who don’t – that provides the greatest comfort. 

Today, the harm presented by a screen and advertising culture that advocates a “kinder, more gentle portrayal” of female bodies is becoming clear. Sanitised and censored depictions leave women alone with their experiences. Normal experiences are made abnormal by their very invisibility. Bodyform’s recent survey found that 21% of women feel that society wants them to keep silent about their experiences, while 44% said that doing so negatively affects their mental health. Bridget’s honesty is comforting but it’s also vicarious: an ideal that screen culture is yet to fully embrace. We need more films like Saint Frances, more books like Motherhood and more #WombStories.

Saint Frances trailer from Vertigo Releasing

Saint Frances is in cinemas from 17th July and coming soon to DVD. Motherhood is available now in paperback.

What to Read Next

The Film Version A-Z of Adaptations

What do digital technologies and global audiences mean for adaptation? And what devices can filmmakers use to translate literary stories into cinematic ones? This series explores the most pressing questions in adaptation today, from A-Z.

The Film Version Companion Pieces

Often storytellers make deliberate connections. Sometimes we make our own. We’re reminded of themes, messages and ideas explored elsewhere in other stories, in other art forms. Taken together these stories can communicate something bigger.

If you’re short on time, start with these quick reads. Through images and quotations, each post explores a different film adaptation and the devices used to transform its literary story for the screen.

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Male Fantasy in American Beauty and The Virgin Suicides

American Beauty and The Virgin Suicides

The image of a young woman lying naked on a bed of red rose petals in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty has become one of the most iconic in 90s cinema. It’s the erotic daydream of a narcissistic, middle-aged man whose chance to escape banal suburban life is wrapped up in thoughts of sex with a teenage girl. If this idea wasn’t troubling enough in 1999, that he’s played with relish by Kevin Spacey only heightens its unease today.

Kevin Spacey and Mena Suvari in American Beauty

Daydreams can be a useful device for filmmakers, helping to expose the friction between who we are and how we want to appear. They are egocentric, allowing characters to live out their suppressed feelings without empathy. Unsurprisingly then, the erotic male daydream routinely objectifies women, repurposing the female image for an exclusively male fantasy. Used shrewdly this familiar motif can meaningfully lay bare the dissonance between male and female desire. But American Beauty is too busy saying something else about stagnated happiness and unfulfilled ambition.

Angela, the film’s teenage cheerleader is an aspiring model. Seeing this seductive image of herself reflected in the eyes of Spacey’s Lester, she happily resides in, and encourages, his fantasy. But when the chance to have sex with him materializes at the end of the film, the cracks and complications in her desire become clear. Nervously, she tells Lester she’s a virgin. His fantasy crashes into reality and we feel the depth of his inadequacy. 

Lester has never considered the perspective of a teenage girl.

Rather ironically, Mendes makes a similar lapse. After waiting so long to unmask the fragility (and passivity) of Angela’s own desires, Mendes turns them into a teachable moment for Lester before dismissing her almost entirely. 

In the same year that the male-centric American Beauty took home five Oscars, Sofia Coppola made the harmful consequences of male fantasy the foundation of her feature film debut. Based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, her The Virgin Suicides reveals the shared experience of adolescent boys who watch, fantasize and lust after five Lisbon sisters living across the street. The tragic suicide pact of these teenage girls shakes the foundations of the community and leaves the boys – now grown men – with a grief they cannot subdue. 

They blame themselves.

And with good reason. The boys’ romantic obsession – a mixture of hotblooded adolescent infatuation and anxiety – prevents them from seeing the girls as they are. Using low contrast film stock and vintage lenses from the golden age of Hollywood, the film is infused with a heady glow and nostalgic grain. Daydream sequences are inspired by 70s Playboy fantasies, steeped in romantic cliche and reproduced with dreamy lighting, slow motion, and extreme close-ups. Floaty images of the girls dissolve into each other. It’s an intoxicating illusion. No wonder that, when the girls eventually reach out for help, the boys’ sexual urges override their empathy. “These girls make me crazy, if I could just feel one of them up, just once,” says Chase, before glimpsing Bonnie’s dead body, hanging from the ceiling.

Both The Virgin Suicides and American Beauty depict young women desperate to escape the confines of suburbia, while middle aged men pine for their lost youth. But, twenty years on, American Beauty offers little more than broad gender stereotypes, while The Virgin Suicides actively challenges them. The film’s opening sequence – which contrasts women chatting together with a father and son barbecuing – establishes the gender conventions that detach and distance the characters from each other; that make the retreat into fantasy inevitable. 

From behind the titles, Lux Lisbon – the object of the boys’ naive fantasies – appears in the clouds and winks. It’s as if she knows the film will demolish our fetishized perception of young women. And Coppola challenges the lack of empathy underpinning this from the very beginning: “Obviously doctor, you’ve never been a 13 year old girl,” says Cecilia to the dismissive middle aged man sent to help her following the first suicide attempt. Despite outward appearances, these suffocated young women are desperate to live – eager to explore their own desires and attractions – and Coppola liberates them from the novel’s male perspective. A cookie cutter shot-within-shot reveals a boy’s name inscribed on Lux’s underwear. And events, unseen by the narrators, play out with poignant authenticity. Unlike Lester and the boys, Coppola cannot help seeing the girls as they really are.  

The tragic disconnect between the men’s heavy-hearted, past-tense narration and the impulsive romanticism of their boyhood creates a peculiar space in which the Lisbon sisters will always be young and beautiful. But Coppola makes their craving more complicated than sex, reflecting a nostalgic yearning for the mysteries and possibilities of adolescence. As boys, the narrators endlessly fantasize about the Lisbon sisters; as men, they spend decades trying to understand them. Whether they can escape their egocentric fantasies remains uncertain, but this timeless film exists as their imperfect act of catharsis. 

American Beauty and The Virgin Suicides are now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.


What to Read Next

The Film Version A-Z of Adaptations

What do digital technologies and global audiences mean for adaptation? And what devices can filmmakers use to translate literary stories into cinematic ones? This series explores the most pressing questions in adaptation today, from A-Z.

The Film Version Companion Pieces

Often storytellers make deliberate connections. Sometimes we make our own. We’re reminded of themes, messages and ideas explored elsewhere in other stories, in other art forms. Taken together these stories can communicate something bigger.

If you’re short on time, start with these quick reads. Through images and quotations, each post explores a different film adaptation and the devices used to transform its literary story for the screen.

Kids With Guns: Depictions of Adolescence in Monos and Piranhas

Monos and Piranhas LFF

As teenage gangs and knife crime become familiar news stories, two exciting filmmakers expose the frenetic energy and naivety of youth by putting weapons in the hands of their fresh-faced casts. From Alejandro Landes (Porfirio) comes Monos, an extraordinary and atmospheric drama about the disintegration of a team of child soldiers. Monos took home the Official Competition prize for Best Film at this year’s London Film Festival and opens in UK cinemas today. Piranhas, works in the opposite direction focussing on the rise of a child gang or ‘paranza’. Piranhas also received its UK premier at LFF where I spoke to writer-director, Claudio Giovannesi (Alì Blue Eyes, Fiore) about his depiction of adolescence in the film. In this feature I explore how Monos and Piranhas portray this complicated transition and what they might tell us about teenage life today. 

The teenagers in Monos use their semi-automatic rifles to guard an adult hostage on a remote Columbian mountainside. They are unpredictable, excitable, impulsive. Rarely visited by their military commanders, they revel in love, games and magic mushrooms, jubilantly firing their AK-47s in euphoric, hot-headed celebration. Knife-edge tension accompanies their volatility seen through the eyes of their mature hostage ‘Doctora’ (Julianne Nicholson) at the mercy of their every whim.

Monos film

Monos has been interpreted as a meditation on the use of child soldiers and an examination of cult dynamics; a power struggle in the vein of Lord Of The Flies. Beneath this lies a much simpler story about the over-confidence of youth; about foolish mistakes with lasting consequences. Recklessness with their guns sets in motion a cataclysmic series of events that the young people cannot escape.

The same kind of frenetic energy bubbles through Claudio Giovannesi’s coming of age drama about teen gangs in Naples, Piranhas. On the roof of an apartment block this group of triumphant teenagers fire their own AK-47s at satellite dishes. This gleeful target practice, aided by Youtube videos, is masked by the ecstatic sound of fireworks. Based on Roberto Saviano’s novel, Piranhas took home a Silver Bear at Berlin earlier this year.

Piranhas film

Just as Monos builds tension from the conflict between the teenagers’ youthful exuberance and the seriousness of their task, Giovannesi suggests the irony of a drug dealing ‘paranza’ who still live at home with their parents. His attraction to the project lay in the “possibility to portray a series of teenagers who are constantly in a precarious balance, somewhere in between war and game, innocence and fierceness, unawareness, the lack of thoughtfulness and tragedy,” explained Giovannesi in conversation at the London Film Festival, “I found this kind of contradiction very poetic”. The poetry is echoed in the haunting portraiture of Monos, the camera closing in on fierce yet ambiguous shots of the characters’ faces imbued with Shakespearean intensity.

The sensual photography of Monos deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available. But it’s the sound design – a hallucinogenic score from Mica Levi that’s fused into the film’s sound architecture with birdsong – that most effectively reveals the teenagers’ connection with their environment.

Monos film

Landscape is vital to the depiction of adolescence in both films. The young people strut just as boldly through the narrow streets of Naples as the exposed hillsides of South America. The teenagers’ habitats not only reveal their confidence and resourcefulness, but also the edges of their comfort zones. Their experiences are intense but, ultimately, limited. For Giovannesi:

“The area in which the film is set is one of the protagonists because the whole struggle of the film, the whole conflict of the film, has to do with who has power over it. So it really is like a fairy tale with a kingdom that has to be conquered or retaken from the invaders. So of course what was very important was that the film was actually set in the areas where these stories happened and where the novel is set. And it is very important because you get a sense of the identities that the characters or the actors had in relation to the areas that they come from.”

His film is spoken entirely in Naples’ unique dialect. “In Italy when it came out in cinemas,” Giovannesi explains, “you needed to have Italian subtitles because no Italian would be able to follow the dialogue otherwise”. The way the characters move through the urban landscape evokes their chaotic, unpredictable energy. Giovannesi oscillates between a static frame crammed with the paranza and a moving camera that traces their motion. “If you think about their essence,” says Giovannesi, “it really has to do with movement and the lack of stasis or the lack of stillness.”   

Piranhas film

While Landes might suggest the impressionable nature of young minds to radical ideology, Giovannesi reveals their susceptibility to the everyday pressures of a consumerist society. His young men covet designer clothes and watches. Their jaws drop at the ostentatious homes of the local bosses. They too want to be seen; to have their own table at the best club in town. Once on top, the teenagers pour all their money into designer gear. They might be dealing drugs, shooting guns and committing murder, but their purchases reveal the wide-eyed immaturity of youth. Gifting the ageing Don Vittorio a widescreen TV and a Playstation, they entertain him with games while he’s under house arrest.

Self-appointed leader, Agostino, hankers after a t-shirt emblazoned with a set of wings. It’s rich with symbolism, suggesting both Agostino’s ‘coming of age’ and the rise of his paranza. As he explains in Saviano’s novel:

‘“It’s like taking someone else powers: it’s as if we’d captured an archangel, which is sort of like saying the boss of the angels, cut its throat, and taken its wings. It’s not the kind of thing that just happens along, it’s something we sweated for, that we fought hard for and won, and now it’s as if we were Archangel from the X-Men got it? It’s sort of like… something we achieved, got it?”’

Pop culture and social media is ever present, feeding and communicating the teenagers’ lifestyle. Don Vittorio asks why Agostino doesn’t try to become a footballer – ‘they’re rich’ – driving home the idea that the teenagers are looking for a shortcut. They are overconfident, lack experience and yet seek to fill a power vacuum left by outgoing mobsters two or three times their age. The story feels acutely relevant, symptomatic of a youth raised on X-Factor and Got Talent, conditioned to easy routes to fame. 

Piranhas film

Giovannesi explains his desire to “portray them as any other adolescents… with their whole world of social media, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, selfies”. Mobster movies inform their behaviour, shaping not only their aspirations but their very identities. Their naivety is charming, often funny, but it’s overlaid with a tragic sense that behaviour in youth defines adult futures.

Saviano, whose novel homes in on dialect and language, explores this through the teenagers’ nicknames or monikers. Don Vittorio explains that:

‘“It’s important what people call you. Your moniker is more important than your real name… If you want to command, you have to have a name that commands. It can be ugly, it can mean nothing, but it can’t be foolish.”’

The pressures faced by young people in establishing and defining their identities also runs through Monos. Indeed, Landes’ characters are known only by their nicknames: Wolf, Bigfoot, Lady, Rambo, Boom Boom, Dog, and Swede. Writing for Roger Ebert, Sheila O’Malley asks whether the sensitive Rambo’s “nom de guerre” might be “a mean-spirited tease imposed on her by the squadron”. “This is how “peer pressure” works in its most sinister state,” she explains, “If it’s hard for adults to stay their own course, then imagine how hard it is for teenagers.” 

In both films, the young people negotiate subtle forms of intimidation, identity crises and shifting morality in their attempt to claim a piece of the adult world; taking chances and seizing the opportunities placed before them. The child soldiers in Monos declare “Doctora is ours now”; a power grab that smacks of a yearning for adulthood. Relocated from the thin air of the mountains to the intense, sticky claustrophobia of the jungle, the young people begin to lose command of their landscape, tipping towards chaos: a choice that’s earned the film comparisons to Apocalypse Now. Landes’ depiction of group mentality and dynamics stings with the anxieties of adolescence; the desire to fit in; the significance placed on bonds of friendship.

Monos film

Blood and friendship lie at the centre of Saviano’s Piranhas novel too. Agostino seeks to build his paranza out of camaraderie and fellowship, the antithesis of mob families bound in blood: ‘the enemy of your enemy is your friend, aside from any issues of blood or relationships’ he thinks. By the end of the novel and Giovannesi’s film adaptation, Agostino will have learned the limitations of this thinking and experienced the pure, instinctive tug of family.

“Unlike the novel,” says Giovannesi, “what the film does is it focuses on the feelings and this huge sensitivity of the characters and that helps us see them not as criminals but as normal people that can be very close to us – our children, our brothers, our friends.” Tonally distinct, Piranhas and Monos close with shots that drive home their characters’ vulnerability and depth of feeling. For Landes, the film’s external conflict is a metaphor for the internal one beneath. “The conflict of adolescence and the actual conflict of war mirror each other,” he told Deadline.

What these films reveal is the perilous mixture of confidence and naivety that typify adolescence. By putting weapons in the hands of their young characters, Landes and Giovannesi amplify their chaotic energy; their ebullience; their impulsiveness. Crucially, the teenagers’ heedlessness and immaturity conflicts with the worldliness of the audience: will someone lose control? will there be an accident? The effect is near unbearable tension that reverberates longer and harder because it echoes a very real problem: that of youth knife crime. 

The young characters remain green and raw at the end of both films; they are not yet ‘adults’ but have instead ‘come of age’ by way of their actions. “When you make a choice of that sort,” to take up arms and enter a paranza, explains Giovannesi, “there is no way out.” The weapons in Monos and Piranhas are a dangerous and tragic extension of ordinary youth.

Read more London Film Coverage here. Don’t miss Monos in UK cinemas from Friday 25 October.

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Home Comforts & Guilty Consciences in The Sisters Brothers & The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs

The Sisters Brothers and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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.