There have been many strange westerns down the years, but few stranger than "The Missouri Breaks". It has been described as offbeat and oddball, which it most certainly is. It is the original curate's egg! There is much about it to be admired, and desperately as I would like to review it positively, it does have a serious flaw that should be pointed out in the interests of a balanced review.
The screenplay is written by Thomas McGuane, whose original version "Rancho Deluxe", was set in contemporary Montana. This one is set in the 1880's. The story is virtually the same wise talking version, just set the little matter of a hundred years before. The rather traditional western plot concerns a literary inclined wealthy rancher, who happens to read "Tristram Shandy" I noticed, which is a fair choice in my book, who suffers from the depredations of a gang of affable horse stealing outlaws, lead by Jack Nicholson in his usual wise cracking form. Despite his civilised lifestyle the rancher is not above using a "regulator", played by Marlon Brando, about whom I will speak more of later, to liquidate these rustlers. Thus begins a war of wits between the rancher, Brando and Nicholson. The film becomes increasingly violent and does not flinch from realism. Things head toward a particularly grisly finale, that tends to stay etched in the mind.
The film has much to admire in it. The cinematography of the wide open spaces of Montana is ravishing. There are also some lovely scenes, like the one where Nicholson's gang steal horses from Canadian mountie's, with some élan it should be said. But it should be remembered that these Canadian policemen "always get their man", and there is a reckoning to be paid. It should also be pointed out that some of the acting is very good. Although I can find Nicholson tiresome at times, he is very good in this film. Harry Dean Stanton is also excellent as always in a support role. There is also a very strong score by John Williams, which is still available I notice. Now that is quite a few positives! But the main sticking point for me is the eccentric and out of control performance from Marlon Brando, as the regulator Lee Clayton, resplendent in a variety of costumes. Edith Head eat your heart out! Brando speaks in a rather strange Irish accent, and hams it up something awful. He starts the film hidden behind a horse, from which he eventually appears behind. This eccentric behaviour continues unabated through the film, and becomes a bit wearisome. At one stage we see him dressed as a frontierswoman in drag! A rather large representation of womanhood it should be said, who obviously ate all the pies Montana had to offer. It all smacks of an actor who has been allowed far too much freedom over his own material, and who was using the film to inflate his own ego. All very odd shenanigans indeed!
Who knows how good a film this would have been without Brando's overblown performance! It is hard to say! The director Arthur Penn, of "Bonnie and Clyde" fame, certainly had a good track record. I would really like to make it four stars, and it comes mighty close with all those positives, but thanks to Mr Brando it has to be a comfortable three stars. Despite the criticism, it does make interesting viewing, but then I am always biased towards westerns!