The Missouri Breaks (1976): Brando & Nicholson’s bizarre Western epic

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For such an iconic director, Arthur Penn only made a significant critical and commercial splash a handful of times throughout his career. His most famous work, 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, revolutionised the crime drama with its rebellious approach of humanising its thoroughly abhorrent protagonists, injecting dark wit and a sense of adventure into otherwise grim proceedings. Amidst curios such as art-house gangster flick Mickey One and cult hippy comedy Alice’s Restaurant, Penn blessed the world with groundbreaking vigilante film The Chase and made an inedible footprint on the 1970s New Hollywood movement with the brilliantly subversive western Little Big Man and existentialist detective thriller Night Moves. From 1980 onwards, his cinematic works started to comparatively suffer in terms of quality (though they weren’t terrible), Penn subsequently returning to directing episodes for television series as he had done early on. His last directorial effort of the 70s, The Missouri Breaks, is an insane western adventure that alternates wildly in terms of tone, comically eccentric in one moment before becoming a disturbing cat-and-mouse thriller in the next, and it all works as a brilliant, weird little package, thanks in no small part to career-best performances from Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando.

Nicholson stars as Tom Logan, the charismatic leader of a gang of cattle raiders operating in 19th-century Montana. The group have had little success recently, and their shoddy lot is worsened by the fact that one of their entourage has been executed by David Braxton (John McLiam), a cruel land baron who responds to raids with merciless brutality. Deciding that they’ve nothing to lose, Logan and co. formulate a plan that will ensure retribution against Braxton and a handsome jolt to their waining profits.

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Buying a small property near Braxton’s ranch, the gang plan to rub the fat cat’s nose in as many clandestine raids on his cattle as possible, with the sweetener being Logan posing as a crop farmer and seducing Jane (Kathleen Lloyd), Braxton’s forceful daughter who immediately exhibits a tentative, somewhat hostile attraction to Logan. With the gang’s behaviour increasing in barefaced audacity, an enraged Braxton realises that he can’t feasibly capture and summarily hang all of them, and not merely because he can’t actually prove their exploits, nevermind his intuition being correct. Resorting to plan B, Braxton hires a man from the outside, a character who is arguably the weirdest, most batshit crazy entity that Marlon Brando ever brought to life, one Robert E. Lee Clayton.

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A professional ‘regulator’ (essentially a hitman), Clayton arrives on the Braxton ranch in an explosive, larger-than-life fashion, sporting a strangely garish dress sense that falls somewhere between cowboy and dandy and an outrageous Irish accent that is very much ‘Fiddly-diddly-dee’. Braxton is immediately annoyed by Clayton’s demeanour but elects to keep him on payroll, as beneath this exterior of buffoonery lurks a fearless, cunning and brutally efficient personality, one that kills skillfully and without remorse. Upon meeting one another, Clayton and Logan are mutually suspicious, and the latter’s cocky indifference soon gives way to the realisation that Clayton is certainly someone to be worried about, the regulator employing a highly inventive array of disguises, accents and murder methods as he ruthlessly picks off Logan’s associates one by one. Determined to continue bleeding Braxton dry and developing sincere feelings for Jane, Logan must endeavour to keep himself and his friends in one piece while facing off this sadistic manhunter, lest he lose his fortune, his freedom and possibly his life.

Upon its release, The Missouri Breaks flopped at the box office and received lukewarm reviews, many critics taking umbrage with Brando’s out-of-control performance. As the story goes, Brando arrived on set displaying his quintessential rebelliousness, and it got to the point where Penn just allowed him to carry on as he pleased. The majority of Clayton’s dialogue and behaviour was improvised by Brando, going so far as to personally handcraft a weapon that was intended to be a combination of a harpoon and a mace. Although many felt that it served to ruin the film overall, I couldn’t disagree more strongly. Brando’s silly accents and costumes (at one point he goes full drag as a stereotypical rustic ‘Granny’) actually make his performance as Clayton all the more unsettling, ostensibly goofy and endearing idiosyncrasies ultimately being the grandiose entertainment of an utterly warped and psychopathic mindset. The more he engages in ad hoc poetic musings and creepy cosplay, it becomes less amusing for the viewer as you realise this individual is a freak of the most malevolent egocentrism, cavorting around in pantomime-like tomfoolery as he mockingly and painfully dispatches his fellow man. In stark contrast to Vincent Canby et al, I believe that Brando’s self-indulgent approach actually created a surreal, frightening and memorable villain.

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Atop Penn’s great direction and John Williams’ quirky and rather quaint score, Michael Butler’s wonderful cinematography captures the lush Montana landscape in all of its serene glory, with brooks, woodlands, hilltops and the titular Breaks (deep cuts into the land around the Missouri River, the longest in North America) seemingly trailing off into infinity. Jack Nicholson’s performance here as Tom Logan is far more subdued than his characteristic lunacy that materialises in characters like Jack Torrance & R.P. McMurphy, electing to showcase a quieter charisma in the vein of his turn as Jakes Gittes in Chinatown, playing Logan as the straight man against Brando’s theatrically evil assassin. Kathleen Lloyd also holds her own as the feisty and essentially decent Jane, a strong woman who comes to empathise far more deeply with Logan than her father David, the latter brilliantly played as a mean-spirited, pompous ass by McLiam. The normalcy of the rest of the picture against Brando’s performance imbues it with a mythical, almost supernatural atmosphere, his chameleonic behaviour evoking the presence of shapeshifters and demonic beings in an otherwise real-world setting. It’s one of those instances where I feel that critics at the time misfired spectacularly, but hey ho, different strokes and all that.

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It’s a funny, touching, scary and very weird film, and I’m very glad that Penn went ahead with the finished product despite a troubled production that saw the work being virtually unrecognisable in contrast to the original script, because he created a misunderstood and undervalued bit of brilliance. I don’t disagree whatsoever that Brando is at his most narcissistic here (save for maybe The Island Of Dr Moreau), but it’s one of the times where it counterintuitively worked wonders, and the rest of the cast, including heavy hitters like Harry Dean Stanton, Frederic Forrest, Randy Quaid and John Ryan, all deliver the goods in spades. A different (and by different, I really mean deranged) kind of western movie, this one is worth your time.

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