Guilty Pleasures: Craig Johnson

Rancho Deluxe: My guilty pleasure
By Craig Johnson. Author of The Cold Dish and Hell is Empty

The New York Times 1975 review remarked that, “Rancho Deluxe’ was so cool, it was barely alive; first-rate ingredients and a finesse in assembling them do not quite either a movie or a cake. At some point it is necessary to light the oven.”

All right, shoot me for actually enjoying the underplayed, lackadaisical, less-is-more quality of two, modern day cattle rustlers—kind of The Big Lebowski meets Red River. A full-blown, parody western, Deluxe was penned by Montana literary great Thomas McGuane, who knew a thing or two about the wretched excesses of the American West (ask him about wrecking his hundred thousand dollar Porsche on a ice-ridden highway at a hundred and ten miles an hour).

In McGuane’s world, the West is full of phonies (including the unhappily married, multi-million dollar ranch owners who used to run a string of beauty salons back in New Jersey). The two most honest characters in the film are the two rustlers, aptly played by Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston, who see stealing cattle as a kind of existential method of self-realization.

Think Beckett in a class war with a .45-70 Sharps Buffalo rifle.

Things are going fine until Slim Pickens shows up as a washed up range detective who shuts down the boys’ fun.

The movie has been accused of being a comedy that just isn’t funny, but I guess I’ve got to argue with that; the scene where the rustlers abduct a prize bull and hold it captive in a hotel room, another where the rustlers convince the ranch hands to become party to the thefts while playing Pong in a local bar, and my absolute favorite—when Jeff Bridges forces a self-righteous father to get on his knees and apologize to his daughter in delicto, at gunpoint (trust me, it’s funny). For poignant, just listen to Joe Spinell as Waterston’s aged, Indian father explain the obsession of westerners to new pick-up trucks as an addiction worse than dope.

Rancho Deluxe was probably meant to be another rebellion against the establishment (especially since the first part of the seventies was really just a sad echo of the sixties), but worrying too much about the political, cultural aspects of Rancho rob you of one of the better qualities of the film—that it IS funny. Sure it’s underplayed, but that’s kind of a hallmark of the West; the land where ‘yep, and ‘nope’ can make up the dialogue of an entire scene.

I’m pretty sure Tom McGuane had a good time writing this screenplay, and I’m sure that his buddy and Livingston, Montana neighbor, Jimmy Buffet had a good time writing the music. You can’t ask for two better outlaws than Bridges and Waterston, both showing us glimmers of genius to come.
Contemporary westerns are hard enough to come by, but ones that are also comedies are even harder. In a time where CGI, explosions and car chases are thrown into every lame screenplay, I enjoy the realism of Rancho Deluxe. What’d you want, New York Times, when the rustlers are confronted in an eighteen-wheeler full of stolen cattle by a .45 toting Slim Pickens,? You wan them to run him over? Nah, the boys just mosey off to the Montana State Prison Ranch and punch a few more doggies…

In addition to being an award-winning author, Craig Johnson is an actual cowboy. He lives, with his wife, on their ranch in Ucross, Wyoming. The population of which is 25. His protagonist, Sheriff Walt Longmire, is in the process of being brought to the small screen by A&E. A pilot has been shot and is awaiting a season order.

Be sure to check out Craig’s website and pick up his latest book: HELL IS EMPTY. He is spending June and July of 2011 touring in support of that book. If he is in your town, stop by and see him.