Arthur Penn’s notorious, arguably ‘revisionist’ Western The Missouri Breaks makes it to Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber, with packaging that keeps the film’s initial infamous discrepancies alive and well with star Marlon Brando’s name retaining top billing. Though it would be Brando’s last sizeable role, the film’s main protagonist is really Jack Nicholson as a matter-of-fact horse thief who runs up against a prosperous man who holds himself above the law by failing to recognize that the rest of the country’s outlying frontiers have them.
The term revisionist is problematic in reference to Penn’s film, though it attempts to make us sympathize with a villain positioned against a civilized businessman who’s nearly as irredeemable. Two wrongs don’t make a right, so if anything, Penn’s adaptation of Thomas McGuane’s script is anarchist at best. Plagued with a troubled production thanks mostly to the superegos of its two main stars, the film was a critical and commercial flop, though time has perhaps necessitated a resuscitation. While unworthy of the same recuperative efforts administered to Michael Cimino’s 1980 maligned Western Heaven’s Gate, Penn’s film isn’t without considerable value, splendidly photographed and entertaining with its ungainly gait. And for fans of the odd and bizarre, Brando’s performance, famously referred to as “out-of-control” by Vincent Canby, is utterly and madly priceless.
The narrative couldn’t be more straight-laced. Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) is a seasoned horse thief, honing a healthy career rustling others’ property with the help of his crew that includes Cary (Frederic Forrest), Calvin (Harry Dean Stanton), Si (John P. Ryan), and Little Tod (Randy Quaid). The film opens upon one of their crew getting hanged for stealing by Montana Badlands rancher David Braxton (John McLiam), a man that rules over his small community as the law, though technically he has no right to enforce anything. Logan and his crew engage in a plan to revenge their man by first pulling off a train robbery, then murdering Braxton’s foreman Peter Marker (Richard Bradford) and buying a piece of land next to Braxton’s in order to rustle the man’s stock. In retaliation, Braxton hires bounty hunter Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando) to find the killers. Clayton has very strange methods, and as he tracks the men after an ill fated attempt to wrangle some Canadian horses, Logan begins an illicit romance with Braxton’s rebellious daughter, Jane (Kathleen Lloyd).
It’s easy to hang the blame on the film’s unsuccessful history on the shoulders of Brando’s eccentric performance, who apparently improvised nearly everything we see on screen and wouldn’t take direction from Penn. Of course, this resulted in Brando’s infamous sequence in which his bounty hunter dresses as a pioneer woman, though it’s not much of a stretch if you’re really examining his other wardrobe choices, fuzzy hat, purple overcoat and all. Brando plays Clayton as a flamboyant, over-the-top personality, and while his sexual orientation is never quite confirmed, it’s a queer performance in every use of the word (decades later Johnny Depp would basically do the same thing in the Pirates of the Caribbean, though we’re firmly told that particular character’s basically a heterosexual drag queen). But Nicholson is credited with his share of diva behavior on set as well, and it’s rumored that the two stars filmed together as little as possible, explaining the lack of shared scenes together, which do stand as the film’s most energetic and arresting. Michael C. Butler beautifully captures the majestic Montana landscapes, zooming us in through a clutch of Dandelions gone to seed right before our opening death sequence.
As is customary with most of the classic titles they resurrect, Kino Lorber forgoes any extra features, simply providing the film on Blu-ray, here in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the often used Academy Flat. DoP Michael C. Butler captures the dusty disorder of plains living, and though he worked a couple times with Don Siegel (Charley Varrick, Telefon) and Hal Needham (Smokey and the Bandit II; The Cannonball Run) plus Mazursky’s Harry & Tonto, this ill-fated collaboration with Penn might be the best example of his talents.
If The Missouri Breaks, so titled for the geographical fissures caused by the Missouri River, happened to be a bit more taut with its simplistic narrative, it might have garnered a larger cult following. We languish in several unnecessary tangents, plus a central romance that seems only to derail the pacing, though Kathleen Lloyd is indeed a likeable screen presence in her feature film debut. The fact of the matter is, Brando’s campy performance continues to enliven otherwise tepid material. As his foil, Nicholson is also enigmatic, a scheming criminal who owns nearly all his shared scenes, while a host of notable co-stars, like dependable Stanton and a young Randy Quaid, tend to pale in comparison. This was Brando’s first role since 1972’s Last Tango in Paris, and The Godfather, for which he won his second Oscar. Nicholson had also just won his first of three Oscars the year prior with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. While Penn wouldn’t return to the critical acclaim yielded by earlier works such as Bonnie & Clyde (1967) and The Miracle Worker (1962), Missouri was his third Western and followed on the heels of the excellent thriller, Night Moves. Expectations were perhaps a bit too high, and unfairly so.