Junior Bonner (1972, directed by Sam Peckinpah)
What’s this, a mood piece by over-the-top, macho violence genius Sam Peckinpah? Yes, and a rarely seen one at that. Steve McQueen plays one of the more revered figures in the loner/real men character studies genre: the aging rodeo star. He returns home to find that his parents (Ida Lupino and Robert Preston, two amazing actors owning a lot of this picture) are not precisely as he remembers them. In fact, the whole town has changed, as has his brother (a blustering Joe Don Baker), now a real estate hustler capitalizing on the image of the cowboy while doing all he can to remove or alter said cowboy’s terrain. Granted, the Old West has been gone a long time, but McQueen is still bummed out by the bulldozers and the subdivisions. Largely speaking, he has no place in the modern world: “Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up …” and all that.
This kind of existential crisis was a theme that Hollywood developed as entertainment during the late 1960s and into the 1970s. The outsider, usually a stoic but good-natured guy’s guy, is suddenly confronted with a world he can’t grasp. He wonders as he wanders, and he’s wondering what it’s all about. (See also: The Last Picture Show, Sometimes a Great Notion, Adam at 6 a.m., Lonely Are the Brave, The Graduate, Five Easy Pieces, Save the Tiger, The Electric Horseman). The idea of using a rodeo rider for such an exploration wasn’t new in 1972 (Nicholas Ray checked in two decades earlier with the excellent The Lusty Men, starring an icon of existential cool, Robert Mitchum). Nonetheless, there’s enough invention and insight here to pass as a leap forward in the making of “little pictures.” It’s also a chance to enjoy the soothing baritone of cowboy-movie veteran and real cowboy Ben Johnson, who has a minor role.
Peckinpah has McQueen at his disposal to register calm, outsider panache and Marlboro Man cool (if we can say that any director ever really had the notoriously difficult McQueen at their “disposal”). He’s one of those movie stars you have to watch; his body language signals all kinds of heroic ideals, but his eyes do most of the talking. Once we are alerted to McQueen’s method, some of his tricks seem like tricks. Then we admire him even more. He looks completely at home in this picture, in which some excellent location shooting of real Arizona towns and rodeos provides another preoccupation of the 1970s: American verisimilitude, lovingly shot in fake cinema verité. If this movie were made today, we would call it indie gold; it would be all the rage at Cannes and Sundance.