The history of the Old West was rife with brother acts: Jesse and Frank, the Daltons, Clantons, the Earps and almost brothers like Sundance and Butch Cassidy, and Eli and Charlie Sisters. Who? Just you wait.

Now, just when we thought we had exhausted the genre, writer Patrick DeWitt went and wrote a novel about two of the strangest brothers in the entire breed, “The Sisters Brothers.”

To complete the circle, French director Jacques Audiard, a maker of at least two great films, “Rust and Bone” and “A Prophet,” bought in and took his superior cast, Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly and Jake Gyllenhaal, and the magic camera of Benoit Debie to Spain, probably because the cinematic old West of John Ford is now a wasteland of motels and abandoned movie sets.

But lucky for us, Audiard has painted a unique canvas of that storied wasteland, and produced a minor masterpiece of horse and gun play.

The plot at first is muddy, grows intriguing, finally arrives at almost great, and takes a prominent place in the library of western cinema. Maybe I’m overdoing it, but I’m overly passionate about westerns, even bad ones like “The Hateful Eight.”

Here we meet Eli (John C. Reilly) a sensitive farm boy turned killer, who carries with him a red scarf that he cuddles close as a talisman, bordering on the erotic, given to him by an admiring teacher.

The now weary and cynical Eli rides with his younger brother Charlie, (Joaquin Phoenix) a reluctant and stumbling drunk, who as a boy, killed his drunken father.

The boys are presented as 1857 saddle-worn assassins in the pay of an old, wealthy land baron called “The Commodore” (Rutger Hauer, who was in the original “Blade Runner,” and curiously has no lines.)

This is clearly a profession they fell into because all the stall cleaners and bartender jobs in town were taken.

Their mission is simple: Track down and kill Hermann Kermit Warm, a mysterious itinerant chemist (a very good Riz Ahmed) who claims to have a serious chemical formula for finding gold in the deep gorges of Sutter’s Field. Methinks the Commodore wants a taste of that.

But Warm meets up with John Morris, (Jake Gyllenhaal) a poet and gold prospector in a mining camp, and teases the New Englander with his dreams.

Morris, a quiet, mystical, intellectual diarist with a strain of Henry David Thoreau in his heart, smells fortune in the air and rides along.

The Brothers, while pursuing Morris, are, in turn, because of their fame, being pursued by bands of bounty hunters, who keep coming at them in dusty streets, dark alleys and wooded hills, in a series of brilliantly framed shootouts.

All the players ride over this bloody, dusty, sage brushed chess board, moving inexorably toward their collective armageddon, unaware that the impish deity who loves mucking up the well-laid plans of dark souls, has a shocking biblical event in store for them all.

The cast, even the smallest walk-ons, are top grade and perfectly set. We are given Allison Tolman as a prostitute in a very special and heartbreaking scene with Eli and the red scarf.

The biggest surprise is the old woman with a gun in the final scenes. You may not recognize her at first but when you do, you’ll be shocked.

“Sisters Brothers” is scary, entertaining and at times, touching. It darts in and out of heartbreak and horror and ends with …?

Most importantly, it is, in these apocalyptic times, just a helluva lot of fun.

J.P. Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and film actor.

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