Jack (Jeff Bridges) and his Indian buddy Cecil (Sam Waterston) pass the time in Montana shooting cattle and sawing them up on the spot with a chainsaw. Rancher John Brown (Clifton James) and his wife (Elizabeth Ashley) – who sold a chain of beauty parlors to buy the “B-Bar Lazy” – decide to break the monotony of western living by declaring “war” on the penny ante cattle rustlers.
Trying to think big, Jack and Cecil kidnap Brown’s blue ribbon seed bull from a livestock show. The Browns pay off and are directed to a hotel room, where the boys have stashed the 2,600-pound steer. Brown’s droopy ranch hands Curt (Harry Dean Stanton) and Burt (Richard Bright) are sent to find the rustlers, but after meeting Jack and Cecil at a saloon, decide to name them as the thieves so they can go back to goofing off.
Jack proposes they work together, masterminding a plan to steal a truck full of Brown’s cattle. Stock detective Henry Beige (Slim Pickens) has been hired by Brown to find the rustlers, but can barely walk and doesn’t appear interested in doing much detecting. Curt becomes infatuated with Beige’s foxy niece (Charlene Dallas), while Jack amuses himself with the wild daughter (Patti D’Arbanville) of a man with a Lincoln Continental Mark IV.
After three novels – The Sporting Club, The Bushwacked Piano and 92 in the Shade – 34-year-old Thomas McGuane had been inaugurated by critics as a new William Faulkner or Ernest Hemingway. Noted for his mastery of language, acidic commentary on American culture, and blundering anti-heroes, the author was soon offered work in motion pictures.
McGuane had sold the film rights to The Sporting Club and bought a ranch in Paradise Valley, Montana. Located at the northern gate of Yellowstone National Park, the valley’s natural beauty and isolation attracted fellow hard living mavericks Sam Peckinpah and Peter Fonda. McGuane used the country as the setting for a screenplay he’d written in two weeks called Rancho Deluxe.
Frank Perry was hired to direct. Extremely literate, Perry had scored a box office hit with Diary of a Mad Housewife in 1970, then adapted Joan Didion’s nihilistic novel Play It As It Lays in 1972. Perry had refused to soften Didion’s bleak Hollywood tale for the masses, and on Rancho Deluxe, prohibited the actors from deviating from McGuane’s text. The film was ignored by audiences and critics at the time, but has surfaced as a cult classic today.
Rancho Deluxe never aspires to be a great drama, western, or satire of either. Somehow, it ends up being all of the above. McGuane seems to have written this script purely out of a desire “just to keep from fallin’ asleep” – Jack’s definition for capitalism – but there’s a difference between a movie that flounders and one that drifts. This one drifts magnanimously. If the object of a movie was to be as low key and goofy as possible, Rancho Deluxe would be a masterpiece.
Jeff Bridges gives an early variation on the societal goober he’d play throughout his career, but Sam Waterston (it’s strange to see this dude not wearing a tie) is sublime, playing a Caucasian looking Indian who could either be the smartest character in the film, or the dumbest. Slim Pickens and Elizabeth Ashley are also a hoot in less screen time, while Harry Dean Stanton and Richard Bright are so affable, they could have been featured in their own spin-off movie.
The film features gorgeous picture postcard lighting by William Fraker and a honkytonk score by Jimmy Buffet (McGuane’s brother-in-law, pre-Parrothood). I can’t argue that it all seems a bit pointless, but the film’s look and sound are so comfortable, Perry gives the audience space to arrive at a “point” at their own leisure. If you’re a fan of ’70s cinema, or of Bottle Rocket, Rancho Deluxe is absolutely worth checking out.
Mark Zimmer at digitally Obsessed says, “While the film seems to have been set up as a sex comedy, even the prurient will find little interesting here, especially since the gorgeous leads, Ashley and Dallas, keep all their clothes on throughout. As Brother Jeff Ulmer might say, we have a serious lack of fan service.”
“There’s nothing so hapless as a movie made in the wrong style, especially when the director doggedly insists on that style to the bitter end,” said Roger Ebert in his January 1, 1975 review in the Chicago Sun-Times. He gave it 1 and 1/2 stars.
CPe at Time Out London says, “In keeping with the audience it is aimed at, the film is self-consciously cynical and insolent, and at the same time fundamentally romantic and seeking to be liked. The combination works surprisingly well, thanks to good ensemble acting, even if Thomas McGuane’s script sometimes veers towards sentiment and smart-ass observations.”