(US - 1976)
Directed by Arthur Penn. Written by Thomas McGuane. Cast: Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, Kathleen Lloyd, Frederic Forrest, Harry Dean Stanton, John McLiam, John P. Ryan, Sam Gilman, Steve Franken, Richard Bradford, Luana Anders, Hunter von Leer, Virgil Frye, Dan Ades. (PG, 126 mins)
When it was released in theaters in the summer of 1976, the western THE MISSOURI BREAKS was arguably the anticipated event film of the season. It was the first and ultimately only pairing of Marlon Brando, offscreen since his GODFATHER/LAST TANGO IN PARIS triumphs of 1972 and 1973, and Jack Nicholson, who had just won the Best Actor Oscar for the previous year's ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST. The script was written by acclaimed novelist and screenwriter Thomas McGuane (92 IN THE SHADE, RANCHO DELUXE) right in the midst of a particularly chaotic, excess-fueled phase of his life where those close to him were dubbing him "Captain Berserko." Like seemingly every major 1970s studio film, it also featured additional script contributions by an uncredited Robert Towne (THE LAST DETAIL, CHINATOWN). The director was Arthur Penn, no stranger to westerns (1958's THE LEFT HANDED GUN, 1970's LITTLE BIG MAN), but best known for his iconic BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967). In short, THE MISSOURI BREAKS' pedigree was without doubt. This was the very definition of a sure thing.
Then, much to the detriment of everyone involved, it was released. Critics hated it. Audiences hated it. The word-of-mouth was toxic. The movie bombed.
THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY, purposefully attempting to sabotage a film with his antics, but while he may be undisciplined, unfocused, and impossibly hammy in THE MISSOURI BREAKS, he's doing what he needs to do keep things interesting, and from the looks of it, he's having a blast. Penn directed Brando in 1966's underrated THE CHASE, which contains one of the actor's best performances from his mid-to-late 1960s downward spiral. Only a decade had passed, but it wasn't the same controlled, serious Brando who showed up to work on THE MISSOURI BREAKS. Brando first appears around the 35-minute mark, hanging off a horse and sporting an over-the-top Irish brogue that sounds like a tribute to his MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY co-star Richard Harris. His performance is a parade of eccentricities that starts off quirky and rapidly escalates to gonzo. He walks into Pete's funeral, roughs up the body, lying in ice in a casket, and proceeds to grab some ice cubes and rub them all over his face. Elsewhere, Brando's Clayton dons a variety of costumes in his pursuit of Logan's gang, disguising himself as a mandolin-strumming preacher mumbling through mouthful of tobacco and later, maniacally cackling in drag in a frontier granny dress as he hurls a spike through someone's head. He sets another on fire while screaming "Smoked meat!" He plays with bubbles in the bathtub. He taunts Braxton while wearing a dorky derby and munching on a plate of raw carrots like a distinguished Bugs Bunny. When Braxton tells Clayton "You're out of control!" it's hard to tell if McLiam is in character or talking to Brando personally. Brando treats the entire project as a self-indulgent, absurdist playground, opting to goof off to his heart's content on United Artists' dime (interestingly, the studio would go bankrupt in four years with another revisionist western, Michael Cimino's much more costly and similarly-reviled-and-now-reconsidered HEAVEN'S GATE), but unlike some of his later films (CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS: THE DISCOVERY, anyone?), no one can accuse him of phoning this one in. 1976 audiences might've been pissed off, but Brando was having the time of his life.
scenes together, but they spend the bulk of the film apart, and the only really lunkheaded artistic decision Penn and McGuane make is in the final confrontation between Clayton and Logan, which is virtually over before it even begins. It's not quite the resolution that the teaming of titans like Brando and Nicholson would seemingly promise.