Because novelist/screenwriter Thomas McGuane’s literary voice was such an enjoyably eccentric component of ’70s cinema (his big-screen work tapered off in subsequent decades), it doesn’t really matter that ’70s films bearing his name have weak stories. What the pictures lack in narrative momentum, they make up for in personality. Rancho Deluxe, written by McGuane and directed by the adventurous Frank Perry, is an offbeat modern Western that’s a comedy by default—which is to say that while the movie has amusing elements, it’s primarily a character study. Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston play Jack and Cecil, low-rent cattle rustlers plaguing a ranch owned by the vituperative John Brown (Clifton James). Eventually, John gets fed up with losing livestock and hires thugs to apprehend the rustlers. First come inept ranch hands Burt (Richard Bright) and Curt (Harry Dean Stanton), both of whom are too horny and lackadaisical to devote much energy toward criminal investigation. Then John brings in a thief-turned-detective, Henry (Slim Pickens), whose idiosyncratic approach mostly involves setting traps and waiting for the rustlers to stumble across his path. Also thrown into the mix are John’s short-tempered wife, Cora (Elizabeth Ashley), and Henry’s hot-to-trot daughter, Laura (Charlene Dallas).
McGuane mostly eschews dramatic tension, opting instead for closely observed scenes of quirky characters behaving in ways that reveal their nature. There’s a great bit, for instance, when Jack and Cecil kidnap a car and shoot it full of holes, partially to make a point and partially to pass the time. In moments like this, McGuane’s script captures the slow rhythms of rural life, as well as the bedrock Western virtue of rugged individualism. In scene after scene, McGuane ensures that his characters evince surprising dimensions. Consider party girl Mary (Maggie Wellman), who reveals unexpected cultural sophistication with her comment about a dinner spread: “This is a weird mixture of yin and yang—so many animal karmas have bit the dust here.” Elsewhere, Stanton’s character tries to look macho while standing outside John’s mansion and running a vacuum over an Indian rug per instructions from the lady of the house. Virtually every minute of Rancho Deluxe is interesting in some way or another, but that’s not quite enough to compensate for the generally aimless feel of the piece. Nonetheless, there’s a lot to enjoy thanks to McGuane’s quirky writing and the generally lively performances. Pickens and Stanton are the standouts, with Pickens’ down-home bluster and Stanton’s laconic vibe suiting the material especially well, though Bridges, James, and Waterston each provide likeable characterizations.
Rancho Deluxe: FUNKY