(Check out my previous Western film review: The Undefeated)
Generally speaking, I avoid watching films and series that I have suspicions of being terrible or potentially awful from a mere glance at their trailers and those associated with the project. For the 1975 contemporary Cattle Rustler Western Rancho Deluxe, I did just that. The film stars Jeff Bridges and Samuel Waterston, both of whom I can generally stomach as actors, but more importantly contains a number of bit players in minor roles or cameos who are legendary actors. These figures include Harry Dean Stanton and Richard Bright as cattle-hands Curt and Burt, Slim Pickens as private investigator Henry Beige with specialty in rustling cases, and Joe Spinelli as the Uncle of one of the rustler kids.
Aside from these figures, I had never heard of the editor, producer, writer, or any of the female stars in the picture before coming to it. I knew the music of the film was provided by the awful ballad country-ish singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffet, which should have been a warning regarding the bad taste of those who made the film. I also had no familiarity with the director of the film, Frank Perry, and after studying his filmography, still have no familiarity with his work as a director of B-pictures and independent films of little or no regard or critical merit. However, I told myself that this was a Western, made in the post- New Hollywood period and thereby potentially something of a heartfelt personal picture in that tradition with an auteur sensibility. And man, I could not have been more wrong.
The protagonists of the film are Jack McKee (Bridges) and Cecil Colson (Waterston), relative bums with no jobs, and no place in society on account of their stupidity in life and their lack of will to work or to create their own work as businessman. Cecil prides himself on being a Native American, despite the actor playing him not looking a bit like one and doing so only naively within the context of the film (something for which his friend ribs him). The two often make ends meet and pay their rent by killing rancher’s sheep, hogs, or prize cows, hacking the best parts of them up with a chainsaw, and hauling them out to their landlady who saves some money on groceries every month thereby.
The farmers who the boys prey upon are hard-working people who don’t deserve the bullshit brought upon them by these ‘protagonists.’ Early on, the two develop an antagonism against a ranch owner who raises prize beef stock, and who is a relatively sympathetic character who works hard, but gets no respect from his kids or his wife (as assholes are won’t to do). The cattle rustlers steal the man’s prize cow and only return him after receiving a large ransom that could potentially wipe the man out financially. In other words, as a kid from a working class background, I can only view the main characters of this film not as fun-loving rogues living off of the fat of the land, but as vultures, vampiric beasts living off of the hard work of others.
Throughout the picture, there a few subplots about the rancher’s wife attempting to cheat on him for no easily ascertainable reason, his own ranch-hands turning against him and deciding inexplicably to work with the cattle-rustlers, and the PI he hires to track them down turning tailcoat and refusing to turn them in to the proper authorities. The film could have been rehabilitated if it contained within it some communist worker revolt subtext against the industrialist ‘man’, but only if it also transformed the rancher from a rational, hard-working, decent person into a monstrous being. It does neither of these things. Instead, by the denouement of the film, viewers are left pissed off that the cattle rustlers finally escape and wishing that some force of moral outrage and firepower would have joined the rancher, and blown out the brains of the two idiots, the ranch-hands, the old investigator, and the man’s wife, and ultimately return to him his cattle and the money he lost for no good reason so he could live out the rest of his days comfortably and in the lap of luxury, where a life of hard work and entrepreneurial activity ultimately ought to lead when undertaken morally and with an ear to the pulse of what consumers desire.
In the words of the immortal Roger Ebert: ‘I don’t know how this movie went so disastrously wrong, but it did.’
[Next up: another film you never want to watch Wild Bill]