Sunday, July 23, 2017

Late Summer Western #2: The Missouri Breaks *** (1976)

Any movie starring both Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson (neighbors in real life) in the 1970s sounds like a match made in heaven, yet their one and only project together, The Missouri Breaks, proved one of the decade's biggest disappointments. With Arthur Penn directing what would now be called a "revisionist western," rumors circulated of never ending problems on the set.  Not surprisingly, stories of Brando's erratic behavior and refusal to take direction were of more interest than the film itself. 

There were other problems: delays caused by weather, accusations of animal cruelty on the set, and daily script revisions. Leonard Maltin called it one of the worst "big movies" ever made, most noted Brando's odd performance.  All the bad reviews makes me wonder if these critics actually watched the film. While there are flaws, the astounding cast of 1970s character actors created a unique tone, blending farce with pathos. The Missouri Breaks has aged well.

A sense of entropy permeates the entire film, mirroring audience exhaustion with the Western genre.  Nicholson plays Tom Logan, leader of a rustling gang. Robin Hoods they are not.  I suppose cattle rustling lacked the romance associated with outlaws like Jesse James and Billy the Kid, they seem to be the bottom feeders of the criminal underworld in the Old West. Logan's gang includes a cast of legendary character actors: Randy Quaid, Harry Dean Stanton, and Frederick Forrest among them.  The new cattle baron David Braxton (John McLiam) is cracking down on rustlers so the gang decides to rob a train and get revenge.  The train robbery scene, a staple of the Western, is shot as a routine maneuver, as if the men are bored with such antics.

Plans for revenge are put on hold when Logan gets into a relationship with Braxton's spirited daughter Jane (Kathleen Lloyd). In the mean time Braxton hires a "regulator" to take care of Logan's gang. 

Enter Brando as Robert E. Lee Clayton, a guy who is a little . . . eccentric. He speaks in an Irish brogue and has lots of hobbies, bird watching among them. One by one he dispatches of Logan's crew, each killing stranger than the one before.  Like a cat playing with a mouse, Clayton likes to toy with his victims before getting rid of them.  At one point he wears a dress as he brings fire and destruction to the land (sure that was Brando's idea). Clayton gets more demonic and terrifying as the film unfolds.  He reminded me a little of the psychotic, Godlike character known as "The Judge" in the Cormac McCarthy novel Blood Meridian. Brando's performance, while offbeat and probably not what the scriptwriter had in mind, is nevertheless memorable and effective. 

What to make of The Missouri Breaks?  Robert Kolker, author of the epochal A Cinema of Loneliness, wrote the following:

Although the film carries some favorite Penn oppositions - particularly that of the individual who lives on the fringes of the legal order and confronts the guardians of that order . . . it is a fairly lifeless work, unable to locate itself within a point of view or a consistent method of telling its tale (20).

Kolker's analysis does get to the biggest flaw in the film: the story feels thin and aimless at times.  But the lack of a tone adds, not subtracts, from the film. Unlike traditional Westerns The Missouri Breaks is commenting upon, the story's allowed to go to some dark places and deal with psychological complexities. Even the "happy ending," if you wish to call it that, feels ironic and oddly appropriate.

Work Cited

Kolker, Robert.  A Cinema of Loneliness. London: OUP, 2011.

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