Monday, October 11, 2010
Arthur Penn: The Missouri Breaks
By Edward Copeland
Marlon Brando could give some really wild, eccentric performances that had the effect of annoying the viewer or, as in the case of Arthur Penn's 1976 film The Missouri Breaks, amusing the audience in its audacity and strangeness as much as Brando's obviously was enjoying being silly. The film marks Penn's third venture into the Western genre, but each time he returns to that type of filmmaking he seems to venture further and further from its conventions. Raising the stakes to make The Missouri Breaks very different from your run-of-the-mill Western, it not only contains a nutty Brando performance, the lead actor is Jack Nicholson who, in comparison, comes off downright subdued.
The opening images are lovely: The camera sweeps over somewhat overgrown plains while three riders on horses can be seen off in the distance. The beautiful scene (painted by d.p. Michael Butler) gets appropriate musical accompaniment from a very un-Williams-like score by John Williams. We eventually see that the three horse riders are approaching what appears to be a picnic in a section of trees. There are women, children and other men, but the audience still can't be clear what's going on. Finally, one of the new arrivals asks if he should kick the horse or if the other man wants to do it. Then it dawns on us as we see a horse gallop away and a young man struggle in the noose from which he's hanging from a tree branch. The suddenness is startling, but this event sets into play the main action of the rest of the movie.
The man whose neck lays broken at the end of that rope had been a member of a loose band of horse thieves led by Tom Logan (Nicholson). The man leading the riders to the hanging was David Braxton (John McLiam), owner of a large horse ranch who was the victim of the wrangling and whose feisty daughter Jane (Kathleen Lloyd) finds his hanging of the thief repugnant.
When word reaches Tom of his associate's death from his other partners (Harry Dean Stanton, Frederic Forrest, John P. Ryan and Nicholson's Last Detail co-star Randy Quaid). Tom's torn between his desire for vengeance and the thought that perhaps it's time to leave the thieving life behind.
After a comically inept train robbery meant to acquire some cash, Tom heads to near Braxton's land to settle down and farm. He makes it a point to encounter Braxton and ingratiate himself with him. It's not as easy a task with Jane, who is surprised when he doesn't come to court. When she asks Tom why he hasn't, he tells her that it's because he's found her to be a huge bitch and just assumed everyone had been too courteous to point it out to her before. Of course, it breaks her down and a romance eventually develops.
Of course, something else happens with Tom's arrival, though the film never shows who is responsible. As Braxton and his daughter are riding toward home, Jane takes her father to task for not taking down the horse thief's body from the tree yet. He insists that he has and they realize that hanging from the same tree is the body of his ramrod. Braxton's outrage leads him to reach out to hire a "regulator" to find who was responsible.
Enter Brando and what an entrance he makes. Jane watches from her porch as two seemingly riderless horses gallop down the hillside to her place. When they stop at her home, Brando suddenly rises from the side of one of the horses, decked out in a white, fringed coat and an Irish brogue. A startled Jane says, "I didn't see you." "You weren't supposed to."
His name is Lee Clayton, apparently an Irishman, though at different points in the film he takes on other guises and accents and one can never be sure if this is the character's gift or Brando just screwing around because once he enters The Missouri Breaks, what was more or less a conventional Western becomes the Marlon Brando Tilt-a-Whirl of Insanity. It starts at that very first moment, continues as he shocks those attending the funeral of the ramrod and proceeds from there.
Of course, Nicholson certainly has the reputation and ability for going way over-the-top but he's a smart enough actor, that when he and Brando have scenes together, he doesn't even attempt to match Brando quirk for quirk and instead underplays, staying in character and subdued. At some point though, you know these two will have to come to conflict at some point, because Clayton's determination to complete his mission — finding out who hanged the ramrod and killing them — even when Braxton so tires of his eccentricities too much and fires him and refuses to pay. Clayton in a way acts as an Old West version of Anton Chigurh: give him a job and he's not stopping until it's finished, even if he's told otherwise.
Penn made three Westerns in his career and they couldn't be more different, starting with the pretty standard The Left-Handed Gun, the wonderful epic satire of Little Big Man and finishing with the shaggy dog story of The Missouri Breaks. I can't honestly say that The Missouri Breaks makes for a good Western or even a good movie, but it's never boring and if you enjoy watching Brando chew scenery in a way that no one else ever could, it's worth a look.