At times, the “New Hollywood” of the ’70s tested the artistic limits of commercial films almost as much as the patience of audiences. Movies like Heaven’s Gate are proof that all the talent and studio money in the world can’t save a picture if it’s riding an incoherent artistic vision.

The Missouri Breaks is no Heaven’s Gate, but it is still an uneven film. Like Gate, remembered largely as the biggest boondoggle of its decade, it’s an ambitious western about authority, greed and how both fuel and corrupt the American spirit. Director Arthur Penn has an eye for naturalistic detail, but doesn’t let beautiful images get in the way of his narrative (beautiful actors are another story). But the languid pacing of many scenes can be a drag, and the viewer loses track of the main conflict: Horse rustlers trying to scrape by and being hunted into extinction.

Jack Nicholson stars as Tom Logan, a horse thief whose gang has recently lost a member to the hangman’s rope. A wealthy land baron has taken it upon himself to mete out Wild West justice, and hires the most flamboyant regulator in human history for the job: Robert E. Lee Clayton, a character lost in Marlon Brando’s epically bizarre performance. Dressed in all white and soaked in lavender perfume, the self-described “manhunter” loves to play with his prey before pouncing, and plans to kill off the gang, one by one.

As with Bonnie and Clyde, Penn’s sympathies lie with the outlaws. They’re not especially good people, but they’re not especially bad, either. Mostly — and this is a credit to the very capable cast — they’re just people, scraping up a spare dollar where they can and making do. Nicholson in particular gives a forgotten, grand performance as Logan. He plays the wild, carefree type he was known for in his early career, but betrays the heavy heart of a man sick of the soul-cracking life on the frontier.

Nicholson’s co-star, Brando, is the film’s greatest asset and liability, and it’s worth seeing this picture for him alone. He steals every scene he’s in, often derailing the flow of the story with bizarre asides that go nowhere in particular. Like the pacing of the film itself, he’s in no hurry to deliver his lines (occasionally with a heavy Irish brogue), but you can’t help watching him. It’s like gawking at a raving street person, wondering just how much crazy they have in them.

In Brando’s case, it’s enough crazy to fill the film’s eponymous canyons, the Missouri Breaks. It’s said he improvised much of his dialogue, and that Penn ultimately gave up and let him do as he liked. It shows. And while your eyes are glued to him sharing kisses with his horse, dropping bugs in Randy Quaid’s mouth or murdering people while dressed as a pioneer granny, the plot is unhitched and galloping away.

That’s another rub: The film shifts tones repeatedly, from jaunty comedy to tender romance, punctuated by Penn’s trademark fits of violence. The individual scenes are often sublime, though they feel as if they belong in different movies. There’s an American tragedy under all this, but Penn never seems able to tie everything together into a coherent whole (a tragedy in itself).

The Missouri Breaks will likely always be remembered as an imperfect film, but imperfect isn’t the same as failure. It takes risks to create art, and the bigger the risks, the larger the payoff. Sometimes there’s satisfaction in just watching

Andrew Good is a film critic and writer living in San Diego.

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