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USA 1976
Directed by
Arthur Penn
121 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

The Missouri Breaks

Although with its sympathetic portrayal of the underdog Arthur Penn’s very 70s Western shares much with his best-known film, Bonnie And Clyde (1967), The Missouri Breaks tanked in its day probably because it bent the genre too out of shape to satisfy audience, or even critical, expectations.

Jack Nicholson plays Tom Logan, a horse thief whose gang (played by Harry Dean Stanton, Randy Quaid, Frederic Forrest and John P. Ryan) falls foul of Montana rancher David Braxton (John McLiam) who hires Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando) to deal with them. Kathleen Lloyd, an actress who worked largely in television before and thereafter, plays Braxton’s rebellious daughter who wins Logan heart.

The basic set up is a familiar one but Penn and writer Thomas McGuane make the story mean something with effective performances by Nicholson and Stanton as the career rustlers, their characters, which are essentially lost souls, being empathetic despite their criminal behaviour. Brando’s hired gun is also a familiar character (compare Yul Brynner in Invitation To A Gunfighter,1964 and Burt Lancaster in Lawman, 1971) but in what is probably his last film before going completely off the rails he plays Clayton as a foppish sociopath with an Irish accent and a taste for dressing up.

With its vision of the waning of the Old West, Penn’s film has points in common with Terence Malik’s 1980 film  Heaven’s Gate (in one scene late in the movie a poor settler adumbrates his vision that his grandson will one day be a member of Rhode Island society) albeit on a smaller scale as well as his own Little Big Man (1970) whilst at the same time its playful approach to the standard Western tropes and general championing of anti-authoritarianism makes it very much typical of 70s American independent film.




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