When a big, eccentric film doesn’t catch on with audiences, it’s tempting to retrospectively position it as an overlooked masterpiece too radical or personal for the mainstream, and The Missouri Breaks certainly has all of its ducks in a row for consideration for such a position. It boasts an inconsistent, occasionally visionary director, willfully difficult, sometimes quite brilliant leading men, and troubling subject matter that, in this case, explicitly alludes to America’s troubled legacy as a country whose laws are designed to favor rich white exploiters who handle the land as they please. The Missouri Breaks has aged well, for reasons that are obvious given those themes, but it’s a beautiful, gleefully weird vanity project that never quite coheres.
Arthur Penn’s film, another of his volatile mixtures of myth fulfillment and deconstruction, opens as a routine but incredibly gorgeous western. David Braxton (John McLiam) is a wealthy land baron given to hanging horse thieves and leaving their bodies strung up in the trees to serve as macabre scarecrows. In the first scene, Braxton rides across his land lecturing to his goons about the accepted losses that a rancher must be able to swallow in order to survive the business. The dialogue is unimportant exposition, but the framing is obsessive and unconventional in a manner characteristic of many revisionist 1970s westerns: In this scene, dandelions are vividly positioned up near the foreground while lush greens and browns fill out the back of the frame, suggesting a primordial land that renders humans as mere passengers. Soon, Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) and his gang of rustlers are introduced, and it’s clear that Tom’s got it in his craw to avenge one of the men Braxton recently hung. Strangely oblivious to the identity of his enemy, Braxton hires on more muscle in the form of Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando), an intelligent, egotistically loony “regulator” who specializes in the sniping of prey from a great long distance.
That serviceable plot has powered a countless number of oaters, many quite good, but Penn, Nicholson, and Brando pay it virtually no heed. The film is really a document of a metaphorical race between two iconic actors to see who can cross over into the realm of self-parody first. Brando wins, handily, as Nicholson was still about 10 years shy of reaching the levels of intense self-regard that the former occupies. As with many films after Last Tango in Paris, a profoundly lacerating high-water mark that appeared to entirely rewire the actor’s internal electricity, it’s impossible to separate Brando’s indifference to the material from his character’s cavalier detachment. Clayton is defined by nothing but “bits,” such as a theatrical Irish accent, a creepy handmade throwing spear, and the requisite Brando eating fetish, and Penn will often stop the narrative dead in its track so as to allow the actor a soliloquy about a pistol that reminds him of a poem, or gastrointestinal distress that immediately follows a huge dinner. Brando, for his part, largely justifies Penn’s indulgence of him; his post-peak freak-show acting is perfect for a robustly cynical western.
The film really cooks when Brando and Nicholson are acting opposite one another. Nicholson’s comic control, his use of verbal punchlines as insinuations of contempt, is masterful (rolling off the actor’s tongue, the word “regulator” sounds positively obscene), and he periodically raises the intensity of Brando’s own game, which is already intense to begin with. One can sense that Brando knows not to trifle with this comparatively fresh whippersnapper. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many scenes between the two performers, and there’s far too much fretting about with various subplots, such as an obligatory romance and a side trip to steal horses from the Canadian Mounties. Penn’s unconventionality and subversion would have paradoxically greater impact if he’d conventionally kept the narrative humming. The theme of morality as a mirage of the privileged and of law and order as a rigged game really snaps into focus when Penn gets his two rich prize-winning bulls into the same ring with one another, allowing them to test who steps back first.
This disc’s image quality might prove revelatory for audience members below the age of 45 or so. Having seen a muddier version of this film a few times prior on cable, I had no idea it was supposed to look this beautiful. Colors are literally painterly, often suggesting a collaboration between Monet and Van Gogh, particularly the rich shades of brown, which are also reminiscent of the color scheme of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Certain images are noisy, particularly bright skyscapes, but this is an attractive transfer. The soundtrack is clean, and lends real heft to the commotion of the major action beats.
Just the theatrical trailer.
Kino impressively beautifies a cult western that’s somehow equally hindered and empowered by its self-conscious eccentricity.