In Sam Peckinpah’s heart-grazing Junior Bonner, Steve McQueen, achingly sweet and complex, gives the performance of a lifetime as Junior “JR” Bonner, a rodeo circuit cowboy visiting hometown Prescott, Arizona, for its Fourth of July Frontier Days, which gives him another shot at lasting eight seconds on bucking Sunshine and at seeing his estranged parents, Ace and Ellie, and younger brother Curly, who is riding a bull of his own: the future; the New West. Curly is bulldozing homes, including those of his parents, for the sake of his Reata Ranch mobile home enterprise, an opportunistic grab at wealth. “You’re as genuine as a sunrise,” Curly tells Junior, hoping to commoditize his brother’s sincerity to sell his mobile homes.
Peckinpah had followed his violent The Wild Bunch (1969) with the genial The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), which he followed with the horrifically violent Straw Dogs (1971), which he followed with the genial Junior Bonner. (Did Peckinpah consciously realize that Straw Dogs, about a husband’s revenge for the gangbanging of his wife, metaphorically addresses the violation of The Wild Bunch, which was studio-butchered for its initial release?)
Ace Bonner (Robert Preston, vivid), ever the dreamer, hopes that his favorite son can complete payment for his relocation to Australia and the search for gold there. “I hear you’re doin’ well,” Ace tells Junior. Junior replies laconically, with an edge of self-deprecating humor, “Where did you hear that?” These two men, each past his prime and barely holding onto an outdated Western ethos, dearly love each other, but shy, quiet Junior has “[gone] down [his] own road” at least in part to escape the measure of Ace’s dazzling self-confidence and boisterous personality. Similarly, Curly struggles in his brother’s shadow.
Ida Lupino is brilliant as proud, vulnerable Ellie.
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