When it’s referred to at all, The Missouri Breaks is generally cited as the movie that derailed Marlon Brando’s ’70s comeback, because after reclaiming prominence with the 1972 double-whammy of The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, Brando confounded supporters by delivering such a campy performance in The Missouri Breaks that he entered the realm of self-parody. Ironically, however, Brando isn’t even the star of this offbeat Western, despite his top billing. The Missouri Breaks is a Jack Nicholson vehicle. But such is the power of Brando’s myth that he dominates the picture—and the picture’s reputation. On one level, it’s a shame the good things in The Missouri Breaks were overshadowed by Brando’s self-indulgence, since the movie’s dialogue has loads of frontier-varmint flavor and the location photography is elegant. Plus, writer Thomas McGuane’s characteristically eccentric storyline takes a fresh approach to ancient themes of revenge and vigilantism. But on another level, Brando’s silly performance is exactly what The Missouri Breaks deserves, since the film is unnecessarily languid and turgid; perhaps a stronger storyline might have motivated Brando to furnish a more streamlined characterization.
In any event, Nicholson stars as Tom Logan, leader of a grubby band of cattle rustlers operating in Montana. When one of Tom’s accomplices is killed by order of a rural judge named David Braxton (John McLian), Tom purchases a ranch near David’s property with the intention of tormenting his enemy. Meanwhile, David hires a mercenary named Robert E. Lee Clayton (Brando) to smoke out local rustlers. (David is, of course, unaware of Tom’s true identity.) Further complicating matters, Tom courts David’s lonely, willful daughter, Jane (Kathleen Lloyd). The story has a few layers too many, its sprawling flow more suited to a novel than a movie, and McGuane’s script often gets lost in thickets of flavorful chitty-chat; to use a musical analogy, The Missouri Breaks is like a jam in search of a melody.
Director Arthur Penn, whose previous films Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Little Big Man (1970) so cleverly undercut genre expectations, veers too far (and too inconsistently) away from the mainstream with The Missouri Breaks—the movie toggles between insouciant tomfoolery and numbingly serious drama. In fact, the film is at its best when nothing much is happening onscreen, because simple scenes allow McGuane and Penn to focus on believably mundane rhythms of behavior and characterization. Supporting player Harry Dean Stanton shines in many of these throwaway scenes with his innately laconic vibe. Nicholson’s at a bit of a loss from start to finish, grasping for a central theme around which to build his sloppily rendered character, and Brando—well, it says everything that the actor performs one of his climactic scenes in drag, for no apparent reason. Whether he’s chirping a comical Irish accent, peering around his horse from odd angles, or sulking in a bubble bath, Brando presents a series of goofy sketches in lieu of a proper characterization.
The Missouri Breaks: FUNKY