The Missouri Breaks

Marlon Brando in The Missouri Breaks (dir. Arthur Penn, 1976).

"Is your nerve gone"? Jack Nicholson.

There are things to admire about The Missouri Breaks. Thomas McGuane's screenplay (I see that Robert Towne had a hand in it too, to what extent I don't know) is filled with dialogue that navigates successfully between the grittily brutish and the comically absurd ("The closer you get towards Canada, the more things'll eat your horse"). Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, Harry Dean Stanton, and others give fine, restrained performances. Other things are not so admirable, such as a sense of narrative inertia at times, a superfluous romance plot, and on an extra-aesthetic note, the fact that animals were badly mistreated and even killed during its making (the AHA condemned the film). The element, however, that is most likely to stick in your memory--an element that renders the categories of "admirable" and "unadmirable" very difficult to keep straight--is Marlon Brando's freakish, sprawling, largely improvised portrayal of Robert E. Lee Clayton, the "regulator" (hit man, basically) who is hired by a Tristram Shandy-reading rancher (played by John McLiam) to come in and pick off some cattle rustlers. Brando does nothing but goof the entire time he is on screen: he mugs, babbles, prances, preens, moues, orates, kisses his horse on the lips, and dresses at one point like an old woman. His Irish (I think) accent is a set piece unto itself. It's impossible to say whether all this "works"; works at what? There is really nothing else to compare it to in cinema. Nicholson had a personal crisis during the filming, feeling that he wasn't worthy to act alongside Brando. The tension shows, but it actually enhances his performance. In the small handful of scenes in which he interacts with Brando (all but the last), we see him doubting his strength, shrinking into inadequacy, losing his nerve--all of which is what the script calls for. The wounds to the actor's pride are also wounds to the character's.

1 comment:

Flickhead said...

"Brando does nothing but goof the entire time he is on screen...There is really nothing else to compare it to in cinema."

It's a fascinating film for Brando alone. When it came out I went to see it at least three times. A terrible western, a vapid drama...yet utterly compelling.

This post may prompt me to revisit some of Brando's stranger acting choices: The Appaloosa, Night of the Following Day (interesting Hubert Cornfield audio commentary on that DVD)...jeez, I don't think I've ever seen Bedtime Story or A Countess from Hong Kong all the way through...!