Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 39, Number 21, September 6, 1976.
The Missouri Breaks
The Missouri Breaks
A rich Montana rancher is concerned at the 7% pa losses he incurs through horse rustlers, and hangs one without trial as an example. His daughter is revolted. The rustlers, led by Jack Nicholson, decide they need a relay ranch, and after robbing a train buy one next to the rancher. They then head off to Canada to rustle some more horses, leaving Nicholson to grow cabbages and be seduced by the daughter. Meanwhile, the rancher engages the services of a Regulator (Marlon Brando). an assassin to whom fair play is a non-concept - who amuses himself for a while as only men with peace in their hearts know how, and then does his job.
Brando is possibly the greatest living film actor, and this is the film in which he is allowed to do just as he likes. The result is inevitably interesting, but not much besides. There is more to any film than the experimentation with pet ideas of one actor. Director Arthur Penn only half recognizes this. He is clearly trying to make something of the rest of the film, but just what, would be hard to say. Perhaps because Penn was hesitant to create too strong an effect outside the Brando scenes, he ends up with a rather shallow combination of the traditional western and an enlarged idiosyncratic character role.
This combination is not strained, but then one gets the impression no one has bothered of strain themselves anyway. Brando is having fun, Nicholson is Nicholson sleezing his way around an atrocious script, and Penn seems to be dabbling in the same approach Brando uses (we'll try this here and we'll try that there), with considerably less success. There is slapstick, some of it quite funny and other parts entirely gratuitous. There's a new perspective on the courting ritual, some half-hearted attempts to breathe individual life into the rustlers, an abundance of people going to the toilet, long sections of tedious development broken by sudden splashes of violence, and so on. Although the bodily functions bits create a motif without any thematic significance, the violence is handled well. Unfortunately Penn appears to be suffering from a Peckinpah backlash, and his hesitancy to explore this aspect means principally that Brando cannot create any depth to his character.
Nicholson has his moments of excellence despite being given almost nothing to work with. But even though he does more than anyone else to hold this film together he ends up being entirely forgettable. He's been playing this role for some years now, each time a little more smoothly, and a little less impressively.
The editing is atrocious, cross-cutting being reduced to a random interspersion of scenes with little value; and the camerawork ranges from the superb to the downright clumsy. The music, the old harmonicas and guitars with bass notes for suspense thing, is good.
Penn's conglomeration appears unified because it is so low-keyed, but golden sunlight and homely dialogues are thin disguises. On the other hand Brando's experimentation works, because the role allows it and he does it so well. Brando pretending to be an Irishman, a Scotsman, and Indian a mystic, a lonesome cowboy, a birdwatcher, and even Marilyn Monroe, is delightful to watch but it's pretty thin stuff.
The film starts to work towards the end, as the tension mounts and people start to get killed in fine Western style. However, that everyone gets their just desserts cannot sanctify what has gone before.
— Simon Wilson