Frank Perry’s film Rancho Deluxe (1975) is a dry character driven comedy that looks at the fallout of American Manifest Destiny in the mid-twentieth century. It’s a film where cattle barons are former franchise holders of beauty salons from Schenectady, New York and the Cheyenne have become totally assimilated into white blue collar culture. Rancho Deluxe is the American West as it is; a place where any romantic notions of being a cowboy are merely the stuff of dreams.
Jack (Jeff Bridges) and Cecil (Sam Waterston) are career rustlers looking to make a dime off of cattle magnate John Brown’s (Clifton James) prosperity. The ne’er-do-well rustlers bumble their way from con to con oblivious to Brown’s efforts to catch them. Slim Pickens, Harry Dean Stanton, Patti D’Arbanville and a slew of character actors round out the cast of the little Montana hamlet.
Perry’s direction is subtle and character centered. Perry coaxes his actors gently into giving very casual, measured performances (even Clifton James appears subdued and naturalistic in his performance in Rancho Deluxe). Perry’s focus is to create an authentic milieu. Each performance adds a layer to the film that gives detail to a specific place and time. The low stakes narrative and ambling pacing reflects Perry’s desire to make Rancho Deluxe a portrait of a niche culture.
Thomas McGuane’s script excels at rancher jargon and oddball humor. Both are employed as part of the masculine social complex that defines rancher culture. Talk about cattle breeding, guns, horses and pick-up trucks are all part of the myriad of rituals that define the identities of the modern cowboy. McGuane’s humor subverts the masculine posturing of the cowboy characters by either revealing their childlike naivete or their lack of sexual prowess. Often Perry will hold a scene a beat long to sustain McGuane’s subversions.
The myth of the cowboy cannot navigate the capitalist society of the seventies, no matter how hard Jack and Cecil try. In a way Jack and Cecil are another iteration of Ned Merrill. Time and again Perry turns his camera to characters and stories about men unwilling to let go of the past. Perry’s preoccupation with masculine frailties suits the neo-western genre and make Rancho Deluxe an overlooked gem.