Mar 19: ‘The Missouri Breaks’ isn’t good and that’s okay

John Williams Missouri Breaks

When it’s there, John Williams’ music compels us because we’re not expecting to hear what we hear.

The Missouri Breaks is not a good movie. That’s not a controversial statement. UW Cinematheque‘s sugar coating as “dark and odd” is damn charitable when we have certifiable visual proof of an out-of-control Marlon Brando torpedoing the goodwill of co-star Jack Nicholson, director Arthur Penn, and screenwriter Thomas McGuane. This is overblown cinema flailing in every direction.

The Missouri Breaks is not a good movie, nor is it a good western. Most notably, it eschews the genre’s rose-colored revisionism for base impulses, as low-rent white men scramble for scraps at the table. Manifest destiny seems to have faded away long ago, and John Williams doesn’t adopt the same grandiosity in his music that he would in the more traditional The Cowboys. His opening is downright weird, jammy and drawn-out like a rejected studio session from a country western band. Kritzerland Records is in sell mode when describing the cue in their re-release liner notes as “haunting.” It’s empty and cold and a far cry from the sunny days of yore that harmonica and guitar should be evoking.

Unlike the flop it’s hitched to, the music of The Missouri Breaks compels us because we’re not expecting to hear what we hear. Williams throws the listener a curveball with a lively jig as Nicholson’s Tom Logan botches a train robbery. A wall of atonal piano neutralizes the chaos of scattering horses. And that’s when music plays at all. Long stretches go by without any input from Williams. One would be hard-pressed to sneak adult beverages into the Chazen Art Museum this Sun, but “Drink when you hear anything more than foley” would make for a fine game.

It’s tempting to over-emphasize the romantic theme Williams crafts for Logan and Jane Braxton (Kathleen Lloyd). It’s poppy and sweet, and it’s completely removed from the composer’s subdued presence. The soft rock guitar and piano duet are shiny objects here, the harmonica counter-melody a vestigial tail. Conventional cues like this make for great listening on their own, but this is an outlier, a bittersweet reminder of the epic those involved assumed they were making.

  • UW Cinematheque presents The Missouri Breaks on Sun, Mar 19 at 2:00p in the Chazen Art Museum. Admission is FREE and open to the public.