McCabe and Mrs. Miller Review


Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a hypnotic, awe-inspiring film. It’s a western, but not much like the westerns you’re accustomed to. While films like Once Upon a Time in the West and Unforgiven offer tales of good vs. evil, and other films like Stagecoach vilify Native Americans or some “other,” Altman’s film goes after the American dream, showing how the pursuit of happiness can lead good men down a dangerous path. It’s a tough film in some respects because it’s so bleak and pessimistic, but its thesis is powerful, and the talent in front of and behind the camera is unparalleled.

When McCabe (Warren Beatty) arrives in the town of Presbyterian Church, he’s a confident outlaw, looking to make a buck the quickest and easiest way he can. He gambles a lot and makes friends with the simple-minded locals, and ultimately decides the best way to make his fortune is to open up a whorehouse. He half-asses it at first, buying three women and putting them up in tents. Then, a Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) comes to town with an offer: Let her handle the day-to-day operations in exchange for a cut of the profits. He agrees, and soon, business at the Northwest’s classiest whorehouse is booming. But the vultures start circling almost immediately, and when McCabe turns down an offer by a major company to buy him out, he begins fearing for his life.

Altman and others called the film a revisionist western, and it’s not hard to see why. In the same way something like The Asphault Jungle changed the crime genre, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is if not the first then the best western to turn its eye away from gunslingers and toward the ordinary citizen. Who would have thought a film primarily about small business dealings could be so interesting (especially when the small business in question is a whorehouse), but it is. The film never lets up, but what’s fascinating is that it rarely if ever opts for big confrontations or thrills. The turns in the plot are shockingly quiet moments, but they carry more emotional and dramatic heft than most films can claim. Not an easy feat, but just one of many reasons McCabe and Mrs. Miller is so successful.

Another reason is Altman’s phenomenal direction. As the film opens, you’re immediately taken with two things: The setting and the music. McCabe and Mrs. Miller doesn’t take place in the desert plains of New Mexico or Arizona, but rather the damp, cold mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Dry sand is replaced by mud, muck, and snow. It’s desolate and seems miserable to live in, and it makes the film all the more unique and memorable. Not only does it just look different than most westerns, but the setting only serves to enhance the film’s tone and ultimate message. The music, too, is soft and affecting. Three Leonard Cohen songs are used in the film, and if you’re at all familiar with his style, you know how this film will be paced. It’s the film equivalent of a Leonard Cohen song—languid but smart, insightful, and thought-provoking.

The performances, unsurprisingly, are top-notch. Warren Beatty’s McCabe runs the gamut from mysterious to pitiful buffoon over the course of just two hours. He’s kind of pathetic, and definitely thinks he’s a lot smarter than he really is, but we want the best for him, especially as the film goes on and his plans unravel quickly. Julie Christie has perhaps never been better. Her Mrs. Miller is feisty, yet vulnerable and especially susceptible to McCabe’s simple charms. She ends up getting a lot more emotionally connected to him than perhaps she wanted to, and she knows she’s going to have to pay a price for that eventually.

I really can’t recommend this film highly enough. It’s so unusual in what it aims to do, and what it actually pulls off, that even western detractors should find something to like here, whether it’s Altman’s direction, the great acting, the surprising storyline, or the unusual mis-en-scene. What’s most impressive, however, is the way all these characteristics comes together to form a—dare I say it—masterpiece.

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