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Junior Bonner (Sam Peckinpah, 1972)
Owing a great deal to Nicholas Ray’s iconic portrait of tough-guy mores, The Lusty Men, Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner is a superior rodeo movie. It presents an intricately layered worldview that ultimately supercedes its rather conventional narrative. Concerned, like many of Peckinpah’s films, with aging and obsolescence to the extent that it turns the convictions of its titular hero (Steve McQueen) into a romantic quest of sorts, the picture’s true meaning lies in the grace notes and minor details that Peckinpah injects throughout. Superbly edited, with thoroughly unconventional cutting and few establishing shots, Peckinpah’s work highlights small, intimate details that most other films of this sort would gloss over. As a result, it becomes less about Junior’s quest for an eight-second ride atop a bucking bronco than it is about Junior’s place in his world.
The director uses rodeo as characterization as expressively as other films have used dance or martial arts battles. One particularly great sequence shows the transient nature of Junior’s success by following a single, spectacular, slow-motion shot of his achievement of the top time in a round of competition with the six seconds, shot in real time, in which he quickly loses the lead. Junior takes the loss in stride, though, driving home the (possibly outmoded) notion that his work provides its own satisfaction. This scene is followed by an equally brilliant one in which Junior and his aging father (Robert Preston) bond while participating in a cow-milking competition. At the same time, Junior’s semi-estranged mother (Ida Lupino) watches from the stand, relaying a complex string of judgments and reactions toward the men in her life, without any dialog. Even Nicholas Ray rarely had his characters express themselves through their actions to this extent, but Peckinpah’s meanings never feel vague. Junior Bonner is so filled with such small details that every scene becomes a new opportunity to make clear both the code of honor that exists between these men and the modern threats to their lifestyle.
Although Junior Bonner is unsubtle in its thematic intentions (for example, the scene where Junior watches as the destruction of his father’s ranch is about as schematic as such a scene could be), its achievement of those goals is surprisingly deft and undeniably heartfelt. Junior emerges a man of certainty and rock-steady belief in a world that should fill him with doubt. By comparing Junior to his brother Curly, in a light that’s not entirely favorable, or by including his father, who is too old to be chasing the dreams he still holds onto, Peckinpah allows us to feel some of that doubt ourselves. Nonetheless, Junior is a man committed to his vocation, despite a world that seems unconvinced about his, or his sport’s longevity (he’s offered three alternative jobs during the course of the film), and that commitment clearly earns him Peckinpah’s respect. When Junior finally does succeed professionally once more, the lack of histrionics (the only hug he receives comes from a clown) demonstrates the film’s commitment to his workingman’s pride.
McQueen’s performance is verbally inexpressive, but is physically articulate, giving us strong insight into his character’s interior life. His characterization is chock full of terrific nuance, but very little dialogue. In a scene that shows him nervously awaiting the results of a lottery to determine the bull he will ride, we don’t get a reaction shot of the actor, but instead a extreme close-up of him nervously, almost unconsciously, fiddling with a typewriter. That’s a refined and unexpected touch typical of Junior Bonner, though. Even the treatment of Junior’s nominal, seemingly obligatory, love interest, expressed throughout most of the film entirely in visual terms, turns out to be something of a non-starter, serving more as a springboard for which Peckinpah can transfer the erotic energy that existed between Junior and his groupie to Junior’s parents, in a subtly tragic, but immeasurably moving scene that closes their character arc.