20 April 2006 | marissas75
Haunting, wintry Western
The first thing to know about Robert Altman's revisionist Western "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" is that it takes place in Washington state. Typical Westerns are set in arid semi-deserts, full of blazing skies, blazing shotguns, and blazing tempers. Here, the dank, chilly Pacific Northwest permits, or rather demands, a different range of emotions: poignancy, regret, wintry melancholy. This film takes many risks, using Leonard Cohen's haunting ballads on the soundtrack and shooting scenes in very low light, but remarkably, everything coheres.
The film features Altman's trademark group scenes with overlapping dialogue, but not his typical interlocking plot lines. True to its title, the story centers on gambler and brothel owner John McCabe (Warren Beatty) and his shrewd business partner, Mrs. Constance Miller (Julie Christie). Still, supporting characters always hover at the edges, taking part in vignettes that underline the movie's themes and occasionally provide some humor. In this way, the movie avoids the chaos and confusion of some Altman films, while always remaining aware that the main characters are part of a larger community. It's a perfect balance: both clear and complex.
Still, "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" is more a study of place and character than a narrative drama. The small, isolated settlement of Presbyterian Church is newly built, but already seems to molder. Ironically, McCabe's brothel is the most "civilized" place in town: it is built quickly and even gets painted, while the church remains half-finished. No families, parents or children live in this bleak town, just a bunch of weary miners and whores who delude and distract themselves. They all have dreams, but barely know how to achieve them; for this reason, they're sympathetic and all too human. McCabe is a true anti-hero, a guy who thinks he's a slick, wisecracking gambler, but his jokes fall flat and he lacks common sense. Mrs. Miller seems confident and shameless, but she secretly uses opium to dispel the pain of living.
At times, the movie is well aware of how it subverts the clichés of the Western genre to reflect what would really have happened out West. For instance, there is a final shootout, but it arises because of a quarrel over businessthere are no Indians, no outlaws, and no sheriffs here! But "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" is much more than just a clever exercise in revisionism; it's never overtly satirical or mean-spirited. It keenly observes its world and then comments on it, overlaying everything with a delicate sense of poignancy and loss. This is the kind of film that stays with you, but not because of sharp dialogue, beautiful images, or showy performances. Greater than the sum of its parts, "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" is memorable for the pervasive but understated mood that runs through every frame, creating a truly atmospheric and humanistic film.