Everyone hated Arthur Penn‘s The Missouri Breaks when it first came out in May 1976 — it was a critical and commercial wipeout — and nobody I know or read talks about it with any particular affection today, and to my knowledge no big-hearted F.X. Feeney type has come along to try and rescue its reputation. And yet it has seemed to linger in the shared consciousness of serious movie fandom.
I personally think of it as a half-good film. It doesn’t tell anything close to an intriguing story, or even one that adds up. At best it’s about interesting dabs of paint rather than the canvas as a whole. And yet every so often I watch it and for whatever reason, stay with it to the end. Why is that?
Jack Nicholson‘s performance is subdued and affected and close to dull, and Marlon Brando‘s Lee Clayton is solely about acting for a paycheck, boredom on the set and brazen showboating — he’s not really in the film. (“Here‘s an interesting little scene in which their characters first meet.) And I depise that harmonica cue signalling that the climax of the train-robbery sequence is supposed to be funny.
And yet The Missouri Breaks has a decent amount of flavor and aroma, ironically, in part, due to Brando’s half-fascinating, half-infuritating locoweed behavior. And due to those two hanging scenes, that Nicholson-Brando “I just slit your throat” scene, that quick scene when John Ryan meets the farmer’s wife behind the barn after dinner for a quickie, that horse-rustling scene in Canada and so on.
After one horse drowned and several others were injured, including one by an American Humane Association-prohibited tripwire, The Missouri Breaks was placed on the AHA’s “unacceptable” list.