The first time you see Eli and Charlie Sisters, they are raining down death in the night. It’s 1851, somewhere in the Oregon Territory, and the sky is as black as a bottomless well. Voices and gunfire puncture the gloom as Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) descend, entering a cabin and shooting dead one man after another. By the time the ground is littered with corpses, a nearby barn has caught fire and so has a stable of unfortunate horses. We sure messed that up, Eli ruefully observes as the uneasy antiheroes of “The Sisters Brothers” are swallowed up by darkness.
The French director Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet”), making his English-language debut, grabs you quickly in a busily plotted movie that tracks the Sisters as they pursue others. They work for the Commodore (a foreboding Rutger Hauer), an enigmatic kingpin with an apparently limitless number of enemies for Eli and Charlie to hunt down. The sly, smiley Charlie is the Commodore’s favorite and perhaps the movie’s, too, just because killing comes naturally to him. The brothers have an appetite for destruction, but only Eli gets indigestion. Delicately played by Mr. Reilly, who opens up his character one emotion at a time, Eli is a seeming conundrum; he’s also the movie’s ace in the hole.
Westerns were made for bloodshed, and “The Sisters Brothers” delivers as expected. After some fussing and narrative table setting — the Commodore makes Charlie the lead man on their next assignment, creating some jokey sibling jostling — the movie settles back down to its deadly business. The brothers are to meet John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a detective the Commodore has hired to track down Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). It’s unclear what the Commodore wants with Hermann and whether he’s been aggrieved or robbed. Like the audience, Eli has been left in the dark about some details, a shared ignorance that hints where our sympathies should land.