What begins as a dirty and schizophrenic revisionist Western akin to Benton’s Bad Company, gradually turns into a fractured and disturbing requiem for the frontier and certainly one of the strangest genre films ever made. It’s impossible to discuss the oddness of Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks without first mentioning Marlon Brando’s out-of-this-world performance as bounty hunter Robert E. Lee Clayton, a stunning jumble of cunning, flamboyance, cruelty, and professionalism. When Clayton shows up half-way through the film as a hired gun, Penn’s narrative almost spins off its axis under the pressure of such a force. Traditional Western archetypes become confused, impotent, and disposable as Clayton overwhelms scene after scene with a personality too big for his environment.
Jack Nicholson’s Tom Logan, a horse thief and the object of Clayton’s gaze, is the only character able to see past his opponent’s ridiculous facade and recognize the incredible danger of such a man. But what exactly makes Brando’s character so threatening to both his prey and the cattle baron who’s hired him? Is it his inferred homosexuality or his disavowal of honorable rules? Could it be both intertwined together? These are all questions that make The Missouri Breaks a near impenetrable but fascinating work. The film seems on the brink of saying something about the complexity and falseness of Western iconography and social codes, but like Clayton’s phantasmic ability to hop around the open terrain, the film morphs so often it becomes overly jarring, even experimental in certain usages of sound and image. By the time Logan gets revenge, his Western world is already turned upside down – friendless, womanless. and homeless – and Clayton’s imprint has been left forever.