The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Missouri Breaks

By the late 1960s, the idea of the good guys vs. bad guys westerns were a definite thing of the past. Spaghetti westerns helped blow the genre up, but back in the states, the concept of a revisionist western started to pop up more and more. Some are excellent -- Ulzana's Raid, The Hired Hand, The Culpepper Cattle Co. among others -- but for the most part, I've always felt they tried too hard to tear down the myths and legends, kneecapping themselves in the process. Somewhere in between is 1976's The Missouri Breaks, a truly odd film with some great moments canceled out by a fair share of bizarre moments.

On the wild frontiers of Montana, a horse rustler, Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson), and his gang have run into some trouble. One of their own has been captured and hung by a local land and cattle baron, Braxton (John McLiam), who took the law into his own hands. With his options somewhat limited, Logan puts a risky plan into action. He buys a small ranch near Braxton's home and poses as a farmer and horse trader, basically stealing from him from right under his nose. The plan seems just crazy enough to work, Logan's "farm" posing as a stop along the trail for stolen horses being transported. Sick of seeing his stock continually stolen, Braxton goes one step further to stop the unknown rustlers. He hires a regulator, a hired gun and killer, Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando), to finish off the rustlers. The rancher might not know the extent of what he's gotten himself into, Logan and his gang in an identical spot. What does Clayton's arrival hold for all of them?

I like the idea behind most of the revisionist westerns. The American west in the 19th Century was a horrifically violent, tough place to start a life. In other words, the west wasn't the ideal, idyllic world many westerns show. From director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), 'Missouri' is dark, gritty, violent, brutal and truly, truly bizarre. It is a little too long at 125 minutes -- aimlessly drifting a little much for my liking -- and definitely tries too accomplish a lot, maybe too much. The production was more than a touch checkered with difficulties, both Brando and Nicholson demanding massive rewrites for their characters. Somewhere in this movie is a genuinely good movie, but it gets lost in a maze of misguided attempts at humor, some physical and raunchy, and moments of heavy drama. It all tries to be too quirky and off-the-wall. If you're going to be different with story and characters, so be it. Just do it. Don't aggressively call attention to it at all times.

Massive rewrites aside, I did like Jack Nicholson as the leader of a gang of horse rustlers, Tom Logan. One of the biggest stars of the 1970s, Nicholson embraces the character, the anti-hero who as presented, isn't such a bad guy. It isn't exactly a sympathetic character, but it is certainly an interesting one. We're not given much background -- just a blink and you'll miss it description about his past -- but then again, a tough as nails anti-hero doesn't need a whole lot of background. There's that Nicholson energy in patches, those outbursts, that nasty grin where you just know he's up to something. He's aided by his gang, especially Cal (Harry Dean Stanton), his right-hand man and an underplayed psycho of sorts. Nicholson and Stanton have a couple very strong scenes together, quiet scenes as the duo talks. The gang also includes Little Tod (Randy Quaid), Cary (Frederic Forrest), and Si (John P. Ryan).

As good as Nicholson is though, what most viewers will take away from 'Missouri' is Marlon Brando. The definition of a method actor, Brando takes this part to places I've never seen before in a western. There have been psychos, there have been unhinged killers, even deranged lunatics, but nothing like this. Brando's Clayton favors flowery perfumes, rocks an Irish brogue that drifts in and out, uses a high-powered sniper rifle, a dainty Mexican pistol with flowers on the handle and a knife-like throwing object that looks like a crucifix. He also quotes literature, is profoundly uncomfortable in his interactions, poses as a priest and a woman and becomes obsessed with completing the job. He's going up against someone in Nicholson who could similarly chew some scenery, but this performance from Brando is both profoundly good and profoundly bad. It's just unreal. It is a part that has to be seen to be believed.

An interesting movie if not a particularly good one. It's all over the place in the end. Too much time is spent with Nicholson's Logan and Braxton's daughter, Jane (Kathleen Lloyd), and their budding relationship. At different points, Clayton and Braxton both from a distance watch Logan and Jane engage in some sex on the prairie. Who could pass that up? The last 30/40 minutes are the movie at its best -- Clayton officially going rogue -- but even then, the ending taps the brakes some when it could have gone for a great finale. The big picture is this, I think 'Missouri' simply tackles too much. At different points, it is equal parts weird, funny, dramatic, comedy falling short, oddly sexual, and quirky for the sake of being quirky.

A missed opportunity with just enough -- just -- to give it a very mild recommendation. Definitely know what you're getting into though, especially with the Godfather himself, Marlon Brando.

The Missouri Breaks (1976): ** 1/2 /****


  1. this was one of the biggest misfires given the talent involved. although one time i actually enjoyed the body count aspect of the guys getting picked off. but other times i am derailed by the awkward pacing in the first half. and im always pulled back into giving it another (and another) chance. i think maybe peckinpah would have pulled it off better.

  2. Oh, man, Peckinpah at the helm with Nicholson and Brando? Even with Peckinpah's weirdness of the 1970s, I'd love to see that, even if it flopped.