After Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) and his gang of rustlers (played by Randy Quaid, Frederic Forrest, and Harry Dean Stanton) rob a train, Logan uses the money to buy a small ranch. Their new neighbor is Braxton (John McLiam), a haughty land baron who considers himself to be an ambassador of culture to the west but who is not above hanging rustlers and hiring gunmen. One such gunman is the eccentric Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando), a “regulator” who speaks in a possibly fake Irish brogue, is a master of disguise, and uses a variety of hand-made weapons. Braxton hires Clayton to kill Logan and his men, despite the fact that his daughter (Kathleen Lloyd) has fallen in love with Logan.
A flop that was so notorious that it would be five years before Arthur Penn got a chance to direct another film, The Missouri Breaks is best remembered for Marlon Brando’s bizarre performance. Brando reportedly showed up on the set late and insisted on largely improvising his part, which meant speaking in a comical Irish accent, singing an impromptu love song to his horse, and disguising himself as an old woman for one key scene. (According to Patrick McGilligan’s Jack’s Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson, co-star Harry Dean Stanton grew so incensed at Brando’s behavior that he actually tried to rip the dress off of Brando, saying that he simply would not be “killed’ by a man wearing a dress.) Brando’s later reputation for being a disastrously weird performer largely started with the stories of his behavior on the set of The Missouri Breaks.
I had heard so many bad things about Brando and The Missouri Breaks that I was surprised when I finally watched it and discovered that it is actually a pretty good movie. For all of his notoriety, Brando does not enter this leisurely paced and elegiac western until after half a hour. The majority of the movie is just about Jack Nicholson and his gang, with Nicholson giving a low-key and surprisingly humorous performance that contrasts well with Brando’s more flamboyant work. While Arthur Penn may not have been able to control Brando, he still deftly combines moments of comedy with moments of drama and he gets good performances from most of the supporting cast. Quaid, Stanton, Forrest, and Nicholson are all just fun to watch and the rambling storyline provides plenty of time to get to know them. Whenever Brando pushes the movie too close to self-parody, Nicholson pulls it back. The Missouri Breaks may have been a flop when it was released but it has aged well.