Tuesday, December 21, 2010

THE MISSOURI BREAKS (1976) - Arthur Penn

Though I've traveled across the country and back mule-packing several different iterations of this classic '70s anti-western (first on VHS, DVR, then finally DVD-R), I was always a little gun-shy about climbing into the saddle for the initial view. I'd mostly heard negative things about Breaks, be it complaints of Brando dressing in drag and chewing scenery or its meandering plot. This being one of the only '70s Nicholson movies I'd hadn't seen and THE ONLY ONE with the two larger-than-life Mulholland buddy-boys finally butting heads in the same flick, I simply didn't want it to be true.

Well, let me be yet another critic to tell you that, yes, for all intents and purposes it appears Brando took the role simply so he could try on his best Richard Harris Irish brogue (and a dainty settler-woman's bonnet). And that, no, this is not one of Nicholson's more charismatic roles. And that, yes, the plot is a bit lackadaisical and threadbare for a Thom McGuane work,  a by-the-book horse thief pursuit yarn on which to hang some fine dialogue delivered by some of our finest actors (Harry Dean Stanton, Randy Quaid and Frederic Forrest).

But let me also be one of the finicky few to tell you that this mix completely worked for me. Brando scenery-chewing in women's headgear may not be Streetcar, but it's still Brando in his prime having fun with Nicholson and the westrrn genre, and that's a fine, fine thing. Their bathtub stand-off is fantastic, like a goofier version of the iconic Pacino-DeNiro diner sitdown in Heat. Also, Nicholson is more relaxed in Missouri than I've ever seen him, a welcome respite after so many of his more blustery "Jack" roles. He lets love interest Kathleen Lloyd do most of the heavy lifting in their courtship scenes which are, by the by, some of the most female-aggressive ones I've ever seen in a western. You've heard of riding side-saddle? Well, how about riding "seated missionary" on a horse Nicholson takes the passive role in Breaks, and the movie is all the better and more pleasantly peculiar for it. Much like the lazy Missouri River, I may have stalled and meandered and moseyed over the years, but I'm glad I finally got around to it. Turns out, it was worth all the fuss.

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