[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
More than a fair share of iridescent, long-shadowed mornings and ghostly blue, otherworldly evenings mark the twilight of an era in The Missouri Breaks, Arthur Penn’s end-of-the-West Western. Penn’s Little Big Man was also an elegy of sorts, an iconoclastic and morally allegorical taking-apart of a corner of Western legend that has turned into (as in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) an artifact consigned to a past made all the more poignant and irredeemable when contrasted to the poverty of a present trying to understand it. In Missouri Breaks, though, Penn and Thomas McGuane seem to be dealing their hands from within the form of the Western, letting the conventions subvert themselves, allowing a marked dissipation of generic coherence (a quality central to Penn’s Night Moves), to leave Penn’s world almost uninhabitable for the people left to muddle out the riddles of life within it. Missouri Breaks unfolds in a country that seems just at the peak of ripeness, ready to go to rot, thick with the flora of a virgin country and yet violated within minutes of its unveiling by a rather nasty hanging that seems a grim but nearly extraneous afterthought to a throng of onlookers gathered socially out in this green world, singing “Oh Susanna” and arguing politely about who ought to kick the horse out from underneath the condemned man. It’s a voracious landscape, even if Samuel Johnson does claim that a blade of grass is just a blade of grass.
In the opening shot (evoking tremors from as diverse a catalogue of Western predecessors as For a Few Dollars More, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Searchers) riders emerge from a landscape, becoming totally involved with the landscape as their distant figures are dwarfed by relatively towering shoots of grass that almost scratch at the camera lens; they are small men, lost in an ephemeral world of seemingly gigantic seed puffs destined to blow away as easily as a way of life on the frontier. As they pull up and stop to scan the expanse of cloud-shadowed grassland, a cattle baron—as though the story were new to him, too—utters an auspiciously time-contracting “The first time I saw this country…” and then goes on to counterpoint remembered perfection with the more recent plights of cattle rustling and animals miring down in the spring. In Missouri Breaks, past and present coalesce in a manner peculiar to Penn’s world of people watching and being watched, examining the stage of their lives as though at one remove from the drama of its meaning.
An amiable band of cattle rustlers headed by Jack Nicholson live endangered lives on the edge of extinction, near enough to the more tangible borderline between the United States and Canada to pose the lure of untried-for riches (the remuda of the Canadian Mounties!) and finally, for Nicholson, of some other life up north, where there’s talk of valleys that have water year round. Too scroungy to gain any sort of mythic repute for themselves, they remain undefined in the West’s iconography, hanging around on the edges of incipient legends as another two-bit criminal pathetically tries to build himself into legend on the spot, pleading with onlookers at a mock trial to “refer to me as the Lonesome Kid, especially in front of outsiders here in the West.” The townspeople are joined in their laughter by the rustlers, themselves nearly comic figures worthy of their own share of scoffing, anachronisms in a West changing too quickly for their own good, a species hunted by the likes of Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando), a decadent Leatherstocking living a twisted version of the West’s man of nature. In Bonnie and Clyde, one also had the feeling that the characters were trapped within their own mythic images, Bonnie commemorating them with a poem, Clyde declaring that if he had it all to do over again he’d rob banks in a different state—never questioning his fate as an outlaw. But even in such purely directorial gestures as a few crucially placed crane shots there was the suggestion of a rising out of the actual into the possible, whereas in Missouri Breaks the possible is adamantly denied. Jack Nicholson stays behind to pose as a farmer when his buddies go north to rob the Mounties; but the pose becomes a sustaining motion as he gets comfortable with a cattle baron’s daughter, a milk cow, and a hundred square feet of root vegetables.
Penn’s world is a gravityless atmosphere of unsettled identity, and indeed everyone is a kind of “outsider” when there are no bearings by which to find the center. Even Michael Butler’s photography suggests an eerie interface between reality and illusion, between the solid and the ineffable. The rustlers drift into Absaroka at dusk to visit a whorehouse; thunder rumbles in the distance, their silhouettes fade into the land, and they stand around in the penumbra of their being as light seems to creep from sources that don’t exist, washing them in the blueness of evening. I have an intuitive faith in that sort of poetry, and an admiration for some unsung moments in Missouri Breaks: Harry Dean Stanton sitting with Jack Nicholson among some rock outcroppings at evening, discussing their prospects, ruminating over a friend’s death; Stanton’s cheeks puff with the smoke from his cigar, an almost offhanded gesture of acceptance. On the other hand, McGuane’s writing is often guilty of overkill, his dialogue too hip and self-aware even for Penn’s purpose of creating a dissonance between what his characters are supposed to be and what they are. The way McGuane writes it, people tend to talk about “The West” as though they were only the most casual participants in the historic continuum. Admittedly, that sense of lost bearings is in large part what Missouri Breaks is about. As Brando says after delivering an off-key tune around a campfire (a religious song about railroads, a song in which a Western image of progress takes on the metaphysical connotations of lost souls in a wilderness), life is like a mountain railroad because you never know whose hand is on the throttle. Randy Quaid, hiding his identity as a rustler just as Brando (significantly dropping the pervasive Irish brogue—itself an affectation) poses as one to conceal his profession as an exterminator of rustlers, says—was McGuane thinking of Hamlet?—”All I can say is that life is not like anything I’ve ever seen.” Missouri Breaks is not like any Western I’ve ever seen. Like many of Penn’s movies, it is an atrophy of meaning journeying into a twilight realm of deception and distance where substance is peeled away from plot and identity, leaving viewers on a borderline between frustration and fascination.
THE MISSOURI BREAKS
Direction: Arthur Penn. Screenplay: Thomas McGuane. Cinematography: Michael Butler. Editing: Jerry Greenberg, Dede Allen. Music: John Williams. Production: Robert M. Sherman.
The players: Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Harry Dean Stanton, Randy Quaid, Frederic Forest, John Ryan, Kathleen Lloyd, John McLiam.
© 1976 Rick Hermann