Flickchart Road Trip: Montana
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
The last half-dozen states have been a dead zone in terms of housing any friends I still keep up with, but as it happens, I have two different friends who live in greater Bozeman, Montana. One is a high school friend who has a radio show on a local Bozeman radio station (her day job is as a park ranger), and another is a former California whiz kid who gave it all up and moved to big sky country after we’d worked together for a couple years. I’m glad to say I visited both of them, and it was really nice to see some familiar faces.
Not much farther along on Route 94 (and just south of it) is Nevada City, known for being home to one of the richest gold strikes in the history of the Rocky Mountains. From the town’s incorporation in 1863 to the end of mining in 1922, an estimated $2.5 billion (in today’s dollars) were extracted from the ground. I guess that was enough for the city to retire, as today it serves as basically an outdoor living history museum, owned by the state and linked by railroad to the neighboring Virginia City Historic District (Virginia City being its sister city during the gold strike). I dig these kinds of things, so of course I visited. In fact, I even stayed in a bed and breakfast while taking in the town’s (somewhat limited) offerings.
I struck gold in a different way while there. Nevada City is, oddly enough, also home to North America’s largest collection of automated music machines. I marveled over these during an afternoon’s visit to the Nevada City Music Hall. I mean, who doesn’t love a musical instrument that does all the work for you?
I may have left behind the state of Missouri early last month, but I have yet to leave behind the Missouri River. In fact, it’s the Missouri River that gives its name to my Montana movie, Arthur Penn‘s 1976 western The Missouri Breaks. Apparently, the river has created these cuts in the Montana landscape over hundreds and thousands of years, known as “breaks.” The globally ranked #3453 film among Flickcharters takes place among these age-old cuts and fissures.
What it’s about
Sick of losing his cattle to rustlers, Montana land baron James Braxton (John McLiam) takes matters into his own hands by having a rustler he captures hanged. The hanged rustler’s friends and criminal cohorts, led by Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson), seek revenge on Braxton for the overreaction to the crime. As Logan establishes himself in the guise of a neighboring farmer in order to size Braxton up, he and his partners pull a couple of other jobs while waiting for their opportunity to even the score with Braxton. When they kill Braxton’s foreman, Braxton escalates matters again by hiring a wild card “regulator” named Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando), who is exceptional with a long-range rifle and never loses a mark. Complicating matters is that Clayton is such an unusual character that Braxton can’t tell what he might do or whom he might kill next. Complicating matters for Logan is that he’s fallen for Braxton’s daughter (Kathleen Lloyd), who may be kin to the heartless land owner but may not agree with everything he does.
How it uses the state
You wouldn’t figure that a bunch of cowboy types would talk a whole lot about anything, but these characters do have occasion to drop a number of other locations around the U.S. into conversation. The only one they don’t mention is where they actually are. However, a title card takes care of that: “The Breaks of the Missouri River – Montana.”
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Montana movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films The Missouri Breaks will battle:
1) The Horse Whisperer (1998, Robert Redford). My Flickchart: #835/3581. Global: #4422. I had the choice of two movies directed by Robert Redford to be my #1 Montana movie, but The Horse Whisperer gets the nod by sitting a couple hundred slots ahead of A River Runs Through It. Besides, this is the one that reminds everyone that Scarlett Johansson was a child actress long before everyone started lusting after her. Johansson is quite good as a teenager maimed in a riding accident, who needs the skills of a good horse whisperer (Redford) for both her and her horse to recover from their trauma. Her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) relocates them to the remote Montana ranch where Redford’s Tom Booker practices his trade, beginning a difficult journey of emotional discovery for all of them … and a possible romantic entanglement for Scott Thomas and Redford. This movie is tender and bittersweet, hitting all the right notes. The Horse Whisperer has had a lasting impact on our culture, as those who can soothe any kind of creature are now popularly known as a “whisperers” — most notably Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer.
2) Open Range (2003, Kevin Costner). My Flickchart: #1366/3581. Global: #1637. Kevin Costner hasn’t done much for me with many of his forays into westerns, such as Wyatt Earp, but this one is actually a real pleasure. It has kind of a laconic, gentlemanly pace that accentuates the brotherly relationship between Costner’s and Robert Duvall‘s characters, but also the sweet courtship between Costner and Annette Bening‘s character. That’s not to say there isn’t going to be some shooting. The story concerns an escalating conflict between the ruthless land baron (Michael Gambon) who runs the town of Harmonville, Montana, and the open range cattlemen that he hates, such as Costner, Duvall and their party. The violence culminates in a drawn-out and expertly staged gun battle in the third act, a sequence justifiably praised as one of the best of all time. Open Range is really worth seeing.
3) Clay Pigeons (1998, David Dobkin). My Flickchart: #1742/3581. Global: #4055. Sarcastic city dweller Vince Vaughn, wearing a cowboy hat? It does work, actually, even though Vaughn seems like the kind of guy whose typecasting is usually justified by his talents. Vaughn has played his share of unsavory characters, though, and one of them appears here, part of a comic noir in which he may be involved in a number of murders/disappearances being blamed on Joaquin Phoenix, and being investigated by Jeanine Garofalo. A small Montana town is turned upside down in the process. Vaughn’s gift for gab and car dealer smile — wavering just a little bit — make him a good complement to the quieter Phoenix, also doing good work. The black comedy is of varying sharpness and quality, and one grating character, a femme fatale played a cigarette-sucking Georgina Cates, nearly torpedoes the whole thing. Ultimately Pigeons does stay afloat.
4) Sweetgrass (2009, Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Ilisa Barbash). My Flickchart: #2091/3581. Global: #27638. Sheep. Sheep. Hills. Sheep. Grass. Hills. A stream. More sheep. A guy having a really animated, expletive-laden cell phone conversation. More sheep. If you don’t like Sweetgrass that much — and I guess I fall into that category — then this is a pretty good description of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash’s documentary charting modern-day shepherds leading their flock into Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture. If you’re a little more charitably inclined toward it, you’d describe it as a meditative, poetic observation of an activity that has its roots firmly planted in America’s past. I was charitably inclined toward it for the first half, before deciding that a little goes a long way. Once you get the gist of Sweetgrass, whatever quantity of it you end up watching is kind of immaterial.
5) Northfork (2003, Michael Polish). My Flickchart: #3462/3581. Global: #7942. It’d be a lot easier to tell you what I found so disagreeable about Northfork if I could remember more about it. What I do remember: It’s one of those ponderous, pretentious movies with laborious production design in which characters carry on conversations whose meaning is not quite clear, toward ends that aren’t quite apparent. Ostensibly, the story is about the town of Northfork, Montana, circa 1955, which must be evacuated because a dam is being built that will flood the valley. It’s comprised of interwoven subplots that deal, more or less, with this topic, but the lasting impression is a bunch of mysterious men in fedoras who do a lot of staring and squinting and speaking to each other in indecipherable code. Admittedly, it sounds like it could be a surrealist gem, but it’s just muddled. Maybe it shouldn’t be this low on my chart, but clearly, I didn’t care for it at all.
First duel: The Missouri Breaks vs. Clay Pigeons. Vince Vaughn may make a surprisingly credible badass, but he’s no Marlon Brando. The Missouri Breaks wins.
Second duel: The Missouri Breaks vs. Open Range. A very good newer western vs. a great older western. The Missouri Breaks wins.
Third duel: The Missouri Breaks vs. The Horse Whisperer. Shhh! Don’t tell. The Missouri Breaks is better. The Missouri Breaks wins.
The Missouri Breaks finishes first out of the six movies.
I should start by telling you that westerns are just not my genre. Oh sure, Flickchart’s western filter tells me I like a whole bunch of them pretty well, such as Dances With Wolves at #85 and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre at #160. Those aren’t the kind of westerns I’m talking about when I say I don’t really dig westerns. Those are more “frontier movies.” When it comes to guys in cowboy hats who pull guns and shoot each other, I generally pass.
That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised by The Missouri Breaks. There are definitely guys in cowboy hats with guns, and vengeance is a big theme. Other than that, though, the movie took me completely aback. I think that’s because neither of its two iconic stars — Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando — seemed likely candidates to be starring in a film like this. Let’s start with Nicholson. With a mug full of scraggly facial hair and a crooked smile, he damn near charmed the pants off me — perhaps more than I’ve been charmed by Nicholson before. Usually he’s working an angle of eccentricity or danger, or he’s just plain playing an S.O.B. So I found it refreshing that he’s the closest thing this film has to a moral center. His eagerness to avenge his friend hanged by the land baron is earnest, though its also gentlemanly in its own peculiar way. You can see why the land baron’s daughter falls for him.
Brando is another story altogether, engaging for altogether different reasons. As the ruthless assassin who’d just as soon tease and taunt his prey as cut them down quickly and impersonally from great distances, Brando is a model for many charismatic villains to follow. Although his performance was derided as mere scenery chewing at the time the film was released, Brando has a ton of fun as the kind of demented outsider who can’t be counted on to behave predictably, even once declaring that he doesn’t care about the money promised him, just wanting to kill the accused rustlers for sport. As he is deadly with weapons as well as words, he’s a chilling adversary, and the actor seems to be enjoying himself immensely by making Robert E. Lee Clayton such a singular creation.
Perhaps what I really enjoyed about The Missouri Breaks is a similarity I perceive it to have with my favorite western, Unforgiven, a film that may just be discussed later on this trip. Although I suppose mano-a-mano confrontations are the bread and butter of the western genre, only the ones that resonate with me seem to use the device in an ideal manner. Unforgiven does it, and the epic standoff between Clayton and Nicholson’s Tom Logan, with plenty of opportunity for non-lethal interpersonal interaction to raise the stakes, does the same thing here. Whatever The Missouri Breaks is doing correctly, I feel it in the ways those stakes really grab me as the movie progresses.
As a nice little bonus, Arthur Penn’s film doesn’t stop at Nicholson and Brando in terms of faces today’s audiences might recognize. Also filling out the cast are Harry Dean Stanton, Randy Quaid and John Ryan. With all that talent on hand, it’s no wonder I appreciated this more than almost any other straight western I’ve seen.
We’ve officially been back in the west for a while now, but the title of my Wyoming movie — Red Rock West — confirms it. John Dahl‘s 1993 film is another Nicolas Cage starrer. You know, in case you’ve been jonesing for a little Cage in the three states since we last saw him.