Most Westerns are, by default if not definition, “picaresque” in nature.
Our hero or anti-hero wanders and roams, an itinerant cowboy, gambler or gunfighter in the saddle, stirring up trouble or righting a wrong, often through the barrel of a six-gun.
Which is why “picarseque” in the Western sense is distinctive for its blood and bullets.
“The Sisters Brothers,” based on Patrick DeWitt’s novel, follows two amusing yet violent, pitiless and murderous rogues — guns for hire — as they pursue their prey down the West Coast in the Gold Rush Era 1850s.
All it takes is an order from the mysterious, never-explains-himself Commodore (Rutger Hauer) and they’re off, punishing, retrieving but mostly killing those this Oregon oligarch deems have “cheated” or otherwise wronged him.
But these siblings — Charlie and Eli (Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly, King of the Buddy Picture) — just appear to be without conscience or remorse, dealing death wherever they go. They’re both undergoing a sort of existential crisis, wrestling with awful childhoods, fretting over the “bad blood” passed down from their drunken, violent father.
They have a lot of time to ponder that in between blasts of mayhem, mishaps on the trail, drunken visits to the brand-new towns springing up on their route and arguments about their past.
They’re hunting a chemist named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed of “Nightcrawler” and “Rogue One”). Actually, they’re following the tracker, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) the Commodore also hired to do the difficult work of finding a thin, dark-skinned educated man in a world of white mountain men, miners, murderers and roughnecks.
Morris is also an educated man, and he recounts his tracking via journal entries and the occasional note he leaves behind for the brothers, who are to do the dirty work at the end of this quest. Their quarry, he relates, “made a precipitate departure,” in one note.
Hotheaded, drunken Charlie isn’t suffering such “pretentious bull—t” gladly. Morris, whom he calls “Mau-RICE” in his rants, gets under his skin.
Eli? He’s just trying to survive the spider who crawled into his mouth and bit him, the grim injuries to his horse, the double-dealing madam Mayfield (Rebecca Root) who gave her name to the town they stop in, a place that could be their last stop ever.
Eli pines for the schoolmarm who gave him her shawl as a talisman while Charlie hunts for that next drink or hooker. Hermann, meanwhile, has connected with John Morris and enlisted him on his own quest for a less violent future financed by his chemical shortcut in the panning for gold process.
Director and co-screenwriter Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet, “Rust and Bone”) stages unforgettable gunfights. None of this old Hollywood “day for night” filming of late-night ambushes. The only thing illuminating the pitch-black darkness of pre-civilization is the flash of a firearm.
He goes to some pains to mimic DeWitt’s novel’s pacing; deliberative passages, comic exchanges and hilariously florid turns of phrase (via Morris) interrupted by carefully spaced-out spasms of violence. That tends to slow the picture. And in showing us the consequences of a .45 bullet to the head or the mauling of a horse, he’s giving us detail that is more unpleasant than most Westerns would include.
But the casting is startling in how spot-on it is, from the pairing of Reilly (producer of the film) with Phoenix to reuniting Gyllenhaal with his “Nightcrawler” co-star, to the mother of the brothers, a shockingly moving (and a tad funny) turn from Carol Kane, most recently seen as daffy neighbor to Netflix’s Kimmy Schmidt.
“The Sisters Brothers” sneaks its messages in the back door, how a world built on justifiable fear and firearms makes life cheap and souls hollow, how the amorality and violence numbed one and all and how lives back then could be just as angst-ridden as they are today, no matter how quick the “hero” is on the draw.
And if you spill enough blood, and “picaresque” just doesn’t cover it.
MPAA Rating: R for violence including disturbing images, language, and some sexual content
Cast: John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix, Riz Ahmed, Rutger Hauer, Carol Kane
Credits:Directed by Jacques Audiard, script by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt. An Annapurna release.
Running time: 2:01