[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]
I have to be on the side of any film in which Harry Dean Stanton is ordered to “Hoover the Navajos”—i.e., vacuum-clean the Indian rugs. The line could only have been written by Tom McGuane, who’s made a specialty in recent years of writing almost surreally funny sendups of the New West. The rugs belong to Elizabeth Ashley, bored but miraculously goodhumored wife of rancher Clifton James who, fresh out of empires to build, has recently focused his obsessive attention on apprehending a couple of one-steer-at-a-time rustlers. In this effort he is—or is supposed to be—abetted by horsethief–turned–stock detective Slim Pickens, who manifests a disconcerting preference for sitting in front of a TV set in the bunkhouse and ignoring the clues James finds and the theories he cooks up. The hard guys interfering with James’s peace of mind (or providing him with esoteric entertainment—take your pick) are about as dangerous as defanged garter snakes: Jeff Bridges, a poor little rich boy with a spoiled marriage behind him, and Sam Waterston, an Indian whose militancy is of a benignly comic strain and whose blood traces back to Ohio Cornplanters rather than the warriors who once rode the surrounding Big Skyline.
If I stress capsule characterizations in describing Rancho Deluxe, that’s because the characters and the performers are the whole show, or at least the best part of it. William Fraker’s stormily subdued cinematography (he directed Monte Walsh) and Frank Perry’s caricaturish direction hint at a certain amount of chic despair behind the absurd shenanigans of a meandering, low-voltage plot, but even Perry, who can be awfully shrill, mostly manages not to intrude upon the film’s bemused, unmalicious comic air. The bad scenes—in either sense of that phrase—seem to be part of some other movie, or another idea of how to have made this one (e.g. Bridges’s unwanted temporary reunion with his ex-wife), and they drift out of mind almost immediately. What one comes away with and pleasurably carries around are moments of unabashedly delicious business: Ashley striking terrific poses in dusky suede against a snowy mountain range, halfheartedly trying to turn on ranchhands Stanton and Richard Bright; Waterston asking Bridges whether he should bring the rubbers on a double date with two cowgirls (“I’m perfectly prepared to embrace the white man’s culture”); Ashley trying to cheer her despondent husband by suggesting he call a press conference on the rustling issue, or resisting the temptation to toss away the blue ribbon his prize bull has just won; Waterston’s father (Joseph Spinell) inveighing against the pickup truck as the unrecognized cause of the Decline of the West; Stanton taking Bridges at electronic pingpong while gradually disclosing he knows who the rustlers are; Slim Pickens digging an antique Sharps big-50 slug out of a fallen steer and musing on the recrudescence of romance in contemporary rustling; Stanton patiently explaining what it means to “Hoover the Navajos”…
Direction: Frank Perry. Screenplay: Thomas McGuane. Cinematography: William A. Fraker. Music: Jimmy Buffett. Production: Elliott Kastner.
The Players: Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, Clifton James, Elizabeth Ashley, Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Bright, Slim Pickens, Charlene Dallas.
Copyright © 1975 by Richard T. Jameson