Ranch owner Braxton (John McLiam) has been suffering from rustlers stealing his livestock, so when he manages to capture one of the men in question, he hangs him without a trial. The man's fellow thieves are sobered by this, and when Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) returns from a trip to Wyoming to their hideout, they tell him the bad news. They decide they need money to set up their own ranch, and Braxton has some land that is up for sale, so the obvious solution is to steal the cash they need. Logan, with the help of Little Tod (Randy Quaid) climbs aboard a train unseen, hijacks the last carriage with the loot on it, and unhooks the coupling so that the carriage is set loose on the track. After a minor setback - the carriage stops on top of a bridge - the gang now have their money; but at what cost do they set up their ranch?
Considered a self-indulgent disappointment when it was first released, The Missouri Breaks gathered a cult status over the years which is only half deserved. It was written by Thomas McGuane, who was also unhappy at the way the film turned out, mostly due to the manner in which his script was used, that is, as the basis for improvisation. By the mid-seventies, the American Western was on its way out, and you could say films like this did nothing to assist the cause for their survival, with the by-then typical trappings of murky photography, grimy appearance, muttered dialogue and genrerally depressing atmosphere. The Western had not so much grown up as grown old, cynical and listless, lacking in fresh ideas - criminal Logan is this film's unlikely moral centre.
Logan's gang buy the small ranch from Braxton, but they need horses and they're not about to secure them legally, so they hatch a plan to set off across the border for Canada and steal some from there. Meanwhile, Braxton is horrified when one of his men is found hanged in retaliation, and makes up his mind to bring in a bounty hunter to act out his revenge. Yes, there's someone missing from all this, isn't there? Step forward Marlon Brando as Robert E. Lee Clayton, head improviser and new regulator for the Braxton ranch. Brando makes his entrance hiding behind his horse by hanging off it, for no particularly good reason - only Braxton's daughter Jane (Kathleen Lloyd) is there to see him arrive, and she's not exactly a threat.
Brando can be best described as eccentric here, in fact this may be his most idiosyncratic performance until his borderline-insane turn in The Island of Doctor Moreau. His character sports an Irish accent, is doused in lilac perfume, and looks as if he's raided Roy Rogers' wardrobe. Somehow, Brando gets away with it, as he's by far the most entertaining actor in the film; not only does he take shots at Nicholson's vegetable patch when they first meet, he also appears as a priest, wears a dress and bonnet, plays the mandolin and harmonica (not simultaneously, although I wouldn't be surprised if there's footage of that on the cutting room floor), and lovingly kisses his horse for good measure. He's absolutely bizarre, all over the place and the highlight of the film even if he does nothing for its credibility.
Complications arise (as if it wasn't complicated enough) when Jane takes a liking to Logan, and they start a love affair, but Logan is still the same rustler he always was - well, almost, he stays behind as the others go on their trip to tend to the domestic duties around their farmhouse. This means he can get to know Jane better, and get a clearer idea of what her father has in mind. Clayton is seen as a laughing stock by Braxton's men, but nevertheless he begins picking off the gang one by one, inexorably whittling their numbers down. Nobody we see die in this film enjoys a peaceful passing, it's as if their mere presence in the wild guarantees a violent end and the film does not romanticise the life of a cowboy, despite the nods to a loveable rogue aspect in their personalities. But neither does it offer a unified tone, as Brando is out of control and Nicholson falls back on his traits of grinning and occasionally blowing up. The overall effect is of a film very pleased with itself, but with this cast and director it's not without interest if you can tolerate this. Music by John Williams.
American theatre and film director whose depiction of the rebellious character in movies found its most celebrated example in Bonnie and Clyde, which was hugely important in ushering in a new style of Hollywood film, not to mention new styles in Hollywood violence. Before that he had helmed psychological Billy the Kid story The Left Handed Gun, the much acclaimed The Miracle Worker, and Warren Beatty-starring experimental flop Mickey One, which nevertheless led to the both of them making the gangster movie that was so influential.