' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Missouri Breaks (1976)

Friday, September 24, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Missouri Breaks (1976)

“Seems like there’s something new in the air,” observes ruster Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson). That something new in the air is Braxton (John McLiam), the cultured, conceited land baron who has just hung Pete (Richard Bradford), Logan’s foreman, but Nicholson’s line reading seems to suggest something bigger than that, something in the stars, a whole seismic shift of the American West and all that entails. Indeed, the opening shot of “The Missouri Breaks” is a close-up of a few undisturbed and undiluted wildflowers just blowing in the wind. Eventually, though, three men on horseback appear as tiny images on the horizon, gradually growing bigger as they trot further and further into the frame, as if becoming a blight on the land. These men include Pete and Braxton, the latter blathering on and on in that way self-impressed white dudes do, about how everything you see was just grass and how he has now acquired “8,000 cattle and 3,500 volumes of English literature in my library.” Law, order, civilization, they have all come to the west. By the end, though, such order will have been tempered. And if Arthur Penn’s movie might be most famous for co-star Marlon Brando’s on-set antics, so thoroughly improvising that he forced Penn to rearrange the ending mid-movie, this is one time the mercurial legend’s noted eccentricities enhanced rather than detracted. 

In the wake of Pete’s death, Logan and his consigliere Cal (Harry Dean Stanton) choose to exact vengeance by purchasing a ranch close to Braxton’s property in order to rustle his stock, funding this venture by pilfering a train, a sequence denoting Penn’s mostly flippant attitude toward traditional action, illustrated in the escape where Penn cuts to Logan escaping the train only to realize the train is standing on a bridge, causing all sorts of comical complications. Braxton enlists Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando), an Irish-American regulator, to sniff out the rustling perpetrators and resolve the problem. That sounds dramatic, but “The Missouri Breaks” is no hurry, adopting a languid pace and tone reveling in conversation, relationships, and character quirks. Nicholson develops a relaxed, lived-in tone with Stanton suggesting years on the trail and develops a convincing, off-kilter romantic chemistry with Kathleen Lloyd as Braxton’s daughter Jane, proto-feminist for whom Lloyd’s nigh modern dialect and temperament feel spot-on, epitomizing those changes in the wind. Thomas McGuane’s oft-kookily formal dialogue, meanwhile, is a delight to hear, especially in our current world, where writing lines that are fun to say comes across antiquated, making it all the more unfortunate that Brando saw fit to concoct his own equally kooky, less mellifluous, compelling dialogue. 

“Miss,” Logan says to Jane after asking if he can accompany her on a ride, “I’m gonna take this opportunity to be just a little damn bit offended. Cuz if there’s anybody in this district who’s got a right to think of themselves as wholesome companionship, why, it’s yours truly.” Not long after in the same conversation, Jane observes Samuel L. Johnson’s observation, the one about a blade of grass just being a blade of grass, “tell me about a human being.” Logan’s response in Nicholson’s voice is the verbal equivalent of a furrowed brow. “Well, I don’t understand that,” he says, emphasizing that, like what in tarnation does that mean, a reminder that if Nicholson spent much of the current century sliding into semi-parody of his Jack persona, once upon a time his elocution was absolutely electric and eccentric. 

It is not, however, just Nicholson’s elocution but the way he lives that elocution out, managing to come across both uncouth and unexpectedly refined in a scene where he brews Jane some tea. He makes his character’s affection for and intrigue in her ring true just as Logan’s wandering thoughts about leading the lawless life behind for a smaller one of love and farming rings true too. Brando, on the other hand, I don’t know. I’m not sure he makes anything ring true, at least in terms of character, just an odd jumble of tics, Brando’s expression in scenes where he really ramps those tics up coming across as self-impressed as Braxton’s when he hires Brando’s character to set things right. That Penn, by all accounts, including his, essentially gave up trying to direct Brando on set, however, weirdly magnifies not only how the actor adheres strictly to his own agenda but how the character Brando is playing adheres strictly to his own agenda too, ignoring Braxton to do as he pleases, ravaging Logan’s best laid plans along the way, a movie and man, a man and movie about the severe limits of control. 

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