On the basis of “The Sisters Brothers,” we’d all be better off handing our westerns to Frenchmen. Especially if the results do right by John C. Reilly.
That fine, ursine character actor — our generation’s Wallace Beery, as I live and breathe — is one of the four corners of the movie’s acting pleasures, the other three being Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Riz Ahmed (HBO’s “The Night Of”). Each plays an utterly distinctive personality set loose on the American frontier, and the underlying drama of “The Sisters Brothers” is how and if these four will find any common ground — and, indeed, how and if any of us manage to do so.
The film’s plot is a dawdle that slowly but conclusively comes to a point. There never were two actual brothers named Sisters, Charlie (Phoenix) and Eli (Reilly), who plied their trade of killing people for hire during the early days of the California Gold Rush. But there certainly were men like them, and in adapting Patrick Dewitt’s 2011 novel, director Jacques Audiard juggles historical accuracy with a gentle post-modern absurdity.
That’s evident in the very first scene, a nighttime siege of an isolated cabin lit up by eerie flashes of gunfire on the prairie. No one’s entirely sure who or what they’re shooting at in this movie, and after a while the uncertainty starts to eat at them.
Of the two brothers, Charlie is the louder, meaner, drunker, and more dominant — or so it seems. Eli is older but shyer, and he has been getting funny ideas about civilization. During a visit to a frontier town, he’s quite taken with a newfangled invention called a “toothbrush.”
“The Sisters Brothers” more or less claims there are two types of men in this world, those who see the need for toothbrushes and those who haven’t yet grasped the point. Charlie and Eli are hired to find a man named Hermann Kermit Warm (Ahmed), who is said to have stolen something from their employer, the Commodore (Rutger Hauer, getting a legend’s cameo). Warm may or may not turn out to be a toothbrush sort of man himself.
Complicating matters is that the Commodore has already sent a detective after Warm, a fellow named John Morris who is played by Gyllenhaal as someone definitely in touch with higher notions of personal grooming. Morris is supposed to find Warm and the Sisters are supposed to kill him. It doesn’t quite turn out that way, in scenes that feint in one direction before ending up somewhere else, sometimes gruesomely and sometimes not.
Audiard (the epic 2009 jailhouse drama “A Prophet,” the gnarly 2012 love story “Rust and Bone”) is a fantastically propulsive visualist who only seems to be on vacation here. “The Sisters Brothers” takes familiar elements of the western and tosses them in the air, curious to see where they’ll land. The jazzy score — I repeat, in a western, and from Alexandre Desplat (“The Shape of Water”) of all people — is an indication of how willing Audiard is to get under the genre hood and start switching parts around.
But the movie works, it well and truly works, because the four main characters come together in ways we could never have foreseen, and the actors themselves seem surprised at the twists the story takes and where their characters fall on the curve. (And not just their characters, since one of the few women to turn up in “The Sisters Brothers,” an iron-fisted frontier boss, is played indelibly by the trans actress Rachel Root.)
Ahmed’s Hermann is a man of scientific mind and a decency so straightforward that we fear for his survival; Phoenix’s Charlie Sisters is his opposite, an atavistic savage. In the middle somewhere are Gyllenhaal’s finicky Morris, rehearsing proper behavior to see if it’ll stick, and Reilly’s Eli, who gropes after goodness like a bear emerging from hibernation.
It’s another of the satisfactions of “The Sisters Brothers” that you may realize only toward the end that Eli is the secret center of both the narrative and its larger themes. It’s a movie in which a man’s character means more than he knows and in which a great character actor comes into his own.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS
Directed by Jacques Audiard. Written by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed. At Boston Common, Kendall Square. 121 minutes. R (violence including disturbing images, language, some sexual content).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.