Brando’s Robert E. Lee Clayton makes his entrance late in the first act riding off to the side of his horse, all the better to surprise Jane Braxton (Kathleen Lloyd), the progressive daughter of vicious land baron David Braxton (John McLiam). Clayton comes off as a dandyish kook at first, but his reputation as a sharpshooting murderer soon comes into view. This sets him on a path toward a confrontation with Jack Nicholson’s Tom Logan, who’s nursing a grudge against Braxton for hanging one of his horse-thieving companions, and one of the film’s most attractive elements is Penn’s eschewal of narrative convention. The story moves at its own pace and presents its violence in a messy fashion, which stood apart from Sam Peckinpah’s elegiac, slo-mo gunfights.
“The Missouri Breaks” was also a rough shoot, and not just due to Brando’s antics (which Penn humored at every turn). If you’ve seen the film, the scene where Clayton leaves Little Tod (Randy Quaid) and his horse to drown in a swollen patch of the river is hard to watch because that animal is clearly struggling to keep its head above water as the scene plays out. According to the Billings, Montana humane society, that horse, named Jug, drowned due to negligence on the part of the production. There is also a scene where Brando kills a rabbit with a bladed implement of the actor’s own devising. This is obviously unacceptable.
As for the highly touted Brando-Nicholson showdowns, they’re strangely inert. Why?