It’s no secret that one of the most common concerns facing Montanans is the influx of out-of-staters and the attendant shrinkage of resources, economic and housing particularly, accompanying their arrival. The refrain of “Montana is turning into California!” has been voiced since the distant days of my innocent rural childhood. The situation is more complicated than a pristine wilderness being paved over en masse by techno-city slickers, of course. Every inhabitant of the Treasure State who isn’t a member of the one of the Native tribal nations is a transplant from somewhere else, when you trace back far enough. But in an age of plague and rampant job insecurity, the Out-of-Stater-Anxiety Syndrome, henceforth known as OOSAS, has fertile ground for proliferation.
The changing American West has served as fodder for movies on various occasions from Classic Hollywood to the current moment. However, it turns out that one of the most uncannily prophetic encapsulations of OOSAS and its ironies was a comedic oddity released in 1975. Rancho Deluxe, starring Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston, was not a financial or critical success upon its initial release, and has become more limited in availability in the era of streaming. None the less, it has emerged as an artifact of robust cult interest, due in large part to its status as a film made in, and about, Montana.
The plot (this term is used lightly here) concerns two small time contemporary cattle rustlers, Jack (Bridges) and Cecil (Waterston), at work in Paradise Valley. The pre-credit sequence depicts them shooting a cow and then attempting to fire-up a stubborn chainsaw to dismember the remains to load into their truck. Their theft is directed at John Brown (Clifton James), owner of the B Bar Lazy T Ranch. Brown, the heir to hairdresser manufacturing fortune from the east coast determined to reinvent himself as a Western land baron, determines to catch the rustlers, despite the skepticism of his sexually frustrated wife Cora (Elizabeth Ashley). He tasks two hired hands, Burt (Richard Bright) and Curt (the late great Harry Dean Stanton), with capturing the rustlers, a plan that goes awry when Jack and Cecil recruit them into the scheme by treating them to a visit to the local brothel. In desperation, Brown brings in the help of former rustler Henry Beige (Slim Pickens) and his femme fatale “niece” Laura (Charlene Dallas). It’s only a matter of time before Jack and Cecil are caught. But does this mean they are defeated? And what does “defeated” even mean here?
The tone of Rancho Deluxe owes much to the free-spirit-stoner road movies of the decade prior to its release. A flick like Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), with its emphasis on individual scenes instead of an overarching story, rebellious counterculture ethos, and classic rock soundtrack, would fit in well as a double feature. Where that movie had songs by The Band and Steppenwolf, Rancho Deluxe serves up multiple songs by Jimmy Buffett, including the title song. Buffett even makes a live appearance in the scene set in the then-operational Wrangler Bar in Livingston (longtime residents will get a kick out of noting that, for all the changes to downtown since the movie was shot, Sax & Fryer remains the same).
Jack and Cecil may travel by beater pickup truck instead of motorbike around Livingston and the surrounding environs instead of across the country, but the scruffy “stick-it-to-the-man” spirit still abides.Sticking it to the man becomes tricky, though, when it could be argued you have met the man and he is you. It’s established that Jack comes from a family of well-to-do out-of-staters, and that he’s ditched them because they cramp his style. So he’s basically a proto-type for the wealthy kid willfully stripping out to “find himself”, albeit without the trust fund and van; it’s a manifestation of OOSAS that sometimes flies under the radar. That Jeff Bridges plays the character goes a long way toward making him palatable.
I’ve long been convinced that Jeff Bridges is one of the great-unsung leading men of American movies. His career is long-ranging and varied; if he hasn’t necessarily garnered the praise or recognition of other movie stars to emerge out of the tail end of Old Hollywood and into the New, it may be due to the essential lack of pretension in both his performances and his attendant star image. He never seems to be trying, or straining for effect. Critic David Thomson has likened Bridges to Robert Mitchum, and the comparison is apt. They both are actors whose skill and charisma can be underestimated do to their sheer effortlessness. Even when playing freewheeling young men, as he often did in the 70s, Bridges has an essential warmth of spirit that makes the audience root for him, even when they may logically know they shouldn’t (though being handsome in an exceptionally embraceable way doesn’t hurt either). It doesn’t take much of a leap to envision Jack from Rancho Deluxe moving further west and morphing into the Dude of The Big Lebowksi (1998) in a couple of decades. We can all hope and pray that Bridges emerges victorious from his current battle with lymphoma and provides us with more of his glorious screen presence.
Bridges has always been on record as being fond of Rancho Deluxe, and for good reason: he met his wife during filming. Susan Geston was working as a waitress at Chico Hot Springs, where a few scenes were filmed. She had two black eyes and a broken nose from a recent car accident, but this didn’t stop the film’s star from asking her out; she apparently turned him down, saying that maybe he could again try later. As it turned out, they crossed paths again in Livingston at a bar. According to Bridges, “We danced, and that was about it, man. I mean, I was head over heels.” They married in 1977, and remain so to the present day. The Bridges’ wasn’t the only romantic union connected with the movie. Screenwriter Thomas McGuane married Mary Loraine Buffett, the sister of Jimmy Buffett, the same year.
The film’s ironic treatment of OOSAS likely owes much to Thomas McGuane. Born in Wyandotte, Michigan, McGuane made his way out west after graduating from Michigan State University in 1962(this is also where he met and befriended another notable writer of the modern West, Jim Harrison). He bought ranch property in Paradise Valley after the screen rights to his 1969 novel The Sporting Club were purchased; he eventually came to divide his time between Paradise Valley and Key West, Florida. His novels are all concerned to varying degrees with the conundrum of the changing West; being a person born out of state who eventually became a noted established resident, has likely given him a certain vantage point about “authenticity” or “being a real Montanan”. It turns out, especially with Rancho Deluxe, that the authentic West is something that likely doesn’t even exist, except in the minds of those who desperately want it to. And even then it may just be the weed (it does bear mentioning that the stoner-rebel may play somewhat differently for a Montana audience in the time of recreational marijuana legalization than at the time of the film’s release).
In what is arguably the movie’s set piece, Jack and Cecil are chased by the ranch’s helicopter. What initially seemed to be a tense standoff, complete with gunfire, abruptly concludes when the helicopter lands, the pilots revealed to be Burt and Curt. The rustlers all have a laugh, catastrophe averted. As I watched this scene, I was immediately reminded of Lonely Are the Brave (1962), a neo-Western featuring a fugitive cowboy played by Kirk Douglas pursued on horseback by a helicopter and jeeps. I have a hard time believing that couldn’t be a direct reference. That film, adapted from a book by Edward Abbey, presented its hero as a literal metaphor for the dying West, crushed by inevitable modernity (insert spoiler warning here). Rancho Deluxe can be seen as the hang-with-it-dude flipside to Lonely Are the Brave.
Sen. Larry Aber, R- Columbus apparently said that Rancho Deluxe made him "ashamed to be a Montanan," as well as a good reason not to have a tax incentive for filmmakers in Montana. While the passage of time has blunted any attendant shame the picture may have imparted to residents of the Treasure State (cult obscurity will do that for you), the senator’s reaction was perhaps unsurprising. A viewer coming to Rancho Deluxe wanting to see a nostalgic celebration of the rugged unspoiled Montana landscape, with OOSAS momentarily banished from mind, would be in for disappointment. On the other hand, for other viewers the absurdity of its vision could serve as refreshing tonic.
OOSAS may be a chronic condition, but with a little booze, Bridges, and Buffett, who’s to say it can’t be weathered?