Monday, April 18, 2011

Junior Bonner (1972)

Junior Bonner saw Sam Peckinpah move away from westerns and action movies to make an offbeat little film that is in fact one of his most satisfying efforts.

It’s still a tough guy movie of sorts, but it’s about tough guys who no longer have any place in the world.

Steve McQueen plays JR Bonner (or Junior as he’s also also known), a rodeo star on the long downhill slide to failure. He’s never been any good at anything else and now the years are catching up and he soon won’t even be much use as a rodeo rider. At his last rodeo he tried and failed to ride the meanest bull on the circuit (a bull (ironically named Sunshine). The opening sequences show him thrown from the bull and leaving the arena, a man battered, weary and defeated. Throughout the movie Peckinpah keeps cutting back to these scenes of Bonner’s failure.

Now JR has returned to his home town of Prescott, Arizona for another rodeo. Things have changed while he’s been gone. His sleazy real estate agent brother Curly has sold out the farm from under his father, Ace Bonner (Robert Preston). Ace is another former rodeo star whose life has been a series of failures. Now he’s lost all his money in an ill-advised gld-prospecting scheme. But Ace is undaunted - he’s heading for Australia to go prospecting again. I guess no-one has told him he’s more than a century late for the Australian gold rush. Ace is a cheerful loser who’ll try his hand at anything to make a buck. Well, anything short of actual work.

Junior’s mother Elvira (Ida Lupino) is the one who holds the family together. Life with Ace has been a series of disappointments but she still can’t resist his boyish charm.

JR has been left with one ambition - to ride Sunshine for eight seconds. It would be one last victory. He’s even prepared to offer half his prize money to Buck Roan (who runs the rodeo) if he can ensure that JR draws Sunshine in the bull-riding event.

That’s about all the plot consists of and it’s not much. And what there is doesn’t really go anywhere. But that’s the point. These are people whose lives aren’t really going anywhere. What saves the movie is Peckinpah’s affection for these amiable losers, and the subtlety and depth with which the characters are drawn. And some very fine acting.

Ida Lupino still lights up the screen. Robert Preston (as always) steals every scene he’s in. Joe Don Baker makes a wonderful Curly - he’s sleazy but he’s not a mere monster. He’s just moved with the times. The rodeo now exists purely for the tourists. It lures them to the town where locals like Curly can have a shot at fleecing them.

Steve McQueen in the title role gives a marvelously effective performance. JR is watching his life slowly slip away. You know he’s going to end up like Ace, drinking too much and living on past glories and dreaming of a future that has passed him by, But he has no regrets. He knows no other life. And if he had a choice this is still the life he’d choose. This is one of two superb performances he gave for Peckinpah in 1972 (the other being The Getaway), both of which are seriously underrated.

The two great dangers facing a movie like this are excessive sentimentality and overdone irony. Peckinpah skillfully avoids both pitfalls. He even manages to end the movie in a perfectly satisfying way. It’s a finely crafted movie. Arguably one of the most unfairly neglected, and best, American movies of the 70s.

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