It's hard to believe that a film with two of the greatest American actors in the last five decades has been so overlooked. I never realized Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson did a film together until I kept seeing it in the Western section at my local video store. Brando and Nicholson in a movie together? Are you kidding me? Cinema nirvana.
THE MISSOURI BREAKS is directed by the great, underrated Arthur Penn who directed BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) as well as another excellent western LITTLE BIG MAN (1970). The screenplay is by novelist and screenwriter Thomas McGuane and MISSOURI BREAKS feels like a novel, moving at a leisurely, unhurried pace that's hard to imagine in today's action packed cinema.
Land baron David Braxton (John McLiam) has a horse thief hung. The gang of horse rustlers led by Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) retaliates and hangs Braxton's best hand. Thus sets in motion Braxton hiring Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando), an Irish "regulator" i.e. killer to get rid of the horse rustlers. Complicating matters is that Logan falls in love with Braxton's daughter Jane (played by newcomer Kathleen Lloyd).
Brando has the showier of the two roles (hard to believe with Nicholson) and he commands the screen with his flowing white mane, buckskin jacket, and Irish brogue. You can't take your eyes off the man. I can't help but wonder if Brando drove director Penn (and the studio) mad with some of his acting decisions in the film. He plays scenes wearing a woman's bonnet or a Chinese coolie hat. In one of his big scenes with Nicholson, Brando sits in a bubble bath. Brando paints an indelible character as Clayton, crazy as a fox yet cunning like a wolf for his prey.
Nicholson's Tom Logan is a different character than we're accustomed to seeing from him. Missing in this film are Nicholson's trademark Cheshire grin and crazy eyes. Instead, he's a loyal friend, dedicated to his gang and their profession. He just wants to be left to his rustling. But the encroaching world won't let him. He plays a game of cat and mouse with Brando's Clayton, pretending to be a landowner, trying to plant a crop, and courting the land baron's daughter as he waits for his gang to return from Canada with some horses. But Brando knows who he is and patiently awaits the rustlers to return.
The Montana west in MISSOURI BREAKS is not the pretty western towns and spectacular vistas of a John Ford or Howard Hawks film. It's muddy and dark and desolate and dangerous. Like a great many westerns in the late 60's and 70's, BREAKS is an eulogy to the Wild West. The time when a group of men could steal horses and make a living is over. Progress is taking over.
The supporting cast is excellent, especially Nicholson's gang. They're well known actors today but young and having the time of their lives in 1976. And they look like horse thieves: Randy Quaid (INDEPENDENCE DAY), Harry Dean Stanton (WILD AT HEART), and Frederic Forrest (APOCALYPSE NOW) make up the doomed gang.
As a teenager, I came upon Marlon Brando late in his career, when he was resigned to making million dollar cameos in films like SUPERMAN (1978) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979). But check out his early films in the 50's and 60's, when he was considered the greatest American actor of his generation. It's hard to disagree. Brando still shows he's got it in THE MISSOURI BREAKS. Yet, this film marks the celluloid passing of the torch to the next up and coming great American actor in Jack Nicholson.