Breaking Badly: “The Missouri Breaks” (1976)


A BRIEF NOTE:  The recently posted You Can’t Go Homestead Again: Notes on Western Revisionism was actually the introductory portion of this very review, which was not only running a bit lengthy, but also threatened to dilute the attention away from the film in question. However, a look at that prior posting may serve to solidify certain points in the following review.

     Midway through “The Missouri Breaks” there is an interesting scene in which rustler Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) confronts hired assassin Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando) who is luxuriating in a scented bubble bath. The set-up is similar to that of a traditional western leading to a climactic confrontation, and this is exactly what the audience is led to believe will happen here, but rather than the emergent contest of firearms proficiency (and thus addressing the individual character’s fortitude in pursuing such a drastic line of response), the scene ends without a purposeful resolution. It is a scene which signals a heretofore openly unacknowledged provocation between the two characters in an already barely coherent contest of escalating gamesmanship, though despite the anticipation of immediate action, it becomes merely an incident of verbal antagonism: the western version of a hissy fit. It is also a scene key to an understanding of what the film’s creators have in mind- or more importantly, what they lack -as far as their conception of their characters and in a broader sense, their skewered conception of the western film. The scene leads to no immediate resolution, but an uncharacteristic hesitation of action that seems to have no clear purpose except to afford Clayton the opportunity to systematically whittle down Logan’s companions one at a time. The scene is symptomatic of what is wrong with “The Missouri Breaks” despite its lofty creative artistic pedigree- or more exactly, because of it -which gives us a film where the expectations of traditional western roles have been upended; but not in a good, or more importantly, meaningful way. There is no doubt that the intention of director Penn and screenwriter Thomas McGuane is to travel an iconoclastic path, but one that is significantly rooted in the well-worn tropes of the traditional American western; the film is littered with noticeable echoes of past movies.

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About chandlerswainreviews

I've been a puppet, a pirate, a pauper, a poet, a pawn and a king, not necessarily in that order. My first major movie memory was being at the drive-in at about 1 1/2 yrs. old seeing "Sayonara" so I suppose an interest in film was inevitable. (For those scoring at home- good for you- I wasn't driving that evening, so no need to alert authorities.)Writer, critic and confessed spoiler of women, as I have a tendency to forget to put them back in the refrigerator. My apologies.
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