Edited and Updated 2016
Released only one year after Robert Altman’s first masterpiece, MASH, this sly, revisionist Western is the rare film whose intentions and affect are captured fully in its opening credits. Fore-grounded, we have an image of a decrepit, hunched over, and phony looking enigma of a man riding slowly into an equally decrepit and hunched-over town. It is nothing short of a stunningly snarky and caustic wry mockery of the Western archetype hero riding into town to save the day. Only he isn’t there to “save the day” here. He, McCabe (Warren Beatty), simply wants to make a name for himself, and he does so by running a brothel, but only once he’s saved by a woman who initially couldn’t care less about him, the down-to-earth Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) who somehow manages to maintain an unreachable magisterial mystery about her. And that’s the film in a nutshell: decrepit, deadened, and down-trodden yet still somehow attaining a sort of energetic sense of positively alert human feeling. In this sense, it is the quintessential New Wave film.
To say the film reveals its nature in its opening credits isn’t to say that the film never progresses. Instead, it is to say that the film is one where every scene and image and sound and feeling are in perfect unison, developed precisely to convey men and women who act completely without precision. It’s all there in the opening: a scraggly guy wandering into a scraggly town that all but can’t exist and perhaps shouldn’t. This is a film by a man, Robert Altman, who loved ensembles. But here he emphasizes only two characters, both of whom play less like people than personifications of mood, time, weariness, and the impending death, or life, of boredom. That’s Altman’s greatest trick, and the film’s most profound tension: with all the time to focus on two characters, rather than many, we expect to understand more about them as people, and yet they are even more-so barely-there impressions, reflections of lives not yet truly lived rather than full, complete people. In this film of most unfathomable loneliness, a work that radiates a purgatorial aura of loss and aimlessness, the best that any character can muster is a momentary rumor of personal mastery, a fragile glimpse of a truly sovereign self, a romanticized projection of uncontestable control of one’s own fate. An illusion, I might add, that only exists to be tragically splintered by the fractured-glass filmmaking.
Yet, Altman doesn’t mock them or indict them so much as he watches and observes their half-hearted, shattered, muddled attempts to define themselves, or simply to live one more day, in the face of a crushing, perplexing world weighing them down. He has fun with them, bewildering them, and perhaps against them too (the opening, as with many scenes afterwards, knowingly pokes fun at Western logic by having square peg characters trying desperately to force themselves into the round holes of the classic Western). Occasionally, Altman moves beyond watching and sheds a tear too, the kind of begrudging one the cantankerous director would have likely wiped away immediately, but the kind that reveals a humanist spirit deep within his weathered, cynical exterior.
His empathy for his characters is all the more notable for this film’s production right in between the old curmudgeon’s two most embittered, angry films, the anti-everyone diatribe MASH and the seething, pointedly bored contempt of a noir that is The Long Goodbye. In between, he may have found some understanding of people, reflected in this film’s knowing respect for weary people. Of course, as if angry or uncomfortable with himself, he set out to lose this concern as quickly as possible, but not before leaving this aching statement to lost souls for the world to see. After all, he had an image to maintain.
But, if McCabe and Mrs. Miller is all about character, it is also a masterpiece of place. “Presbyterian Church”, a small Pacific Northwest logging town in 1903, is a true landscape-of-the-mind, an evocative otherworld where men seem to go for no reason other than to fade away. It’s just barely put-together, as though it was always in a state of falling apart. But you can feel a lived-in energy to the place, a sense of the passage of time, a sense that the people here not only know each other but have a sense of one another. It’s imperiled, not only by the ruthless capitalists who come to take over McCabe’s brothel, but by the very bitter, mud-swallowed earth and overhanging branches that it was built from.
Thus, this is a town unlike any other movie town. There’s no desert – that sun-drenched landscape of clean flatness and wide expanse, where everything is open, sanded-off, and entirely visible to the moral world around you. This was the landscape upon which Westerns made and unmade their characters, the perfect fit for people who wanted to convey they had nothing to hide. Here, we have nothing but places to hide and weather which obfuscates – mud, dirt, rain, and snow, all working in tandem to define and hide the spirit of characters hewn from the environment. The light simmers, haunts, creeps up on you, and hints – there’s just enough to see something little and have it grow and fester in the mind, but never enough to truly capture any sense of truth. The place is dense, with all sorts of branches to poke and prod at good judgment and cramped spaces in which to uncover secrets as well as to leave others long forgotten.
And none are more-so cramped and dense than the weary, lived-in bodies struggling to cope with themselves and the passage of time. If this passage of time is maybe the classical Western theme, here it’s rendered with an impressionist desperation and sense of decay. What we learn about these people, we learn through quiet motions, enraged, short-tempered bickering, and the way they look at each other and their environment as if there is really no difference between the two.
As such, the film emerges as far more than simply a revisionist Western, although it is that as well. The environment, covered in snow and situated in the Northwest, certainly doesn’t convey the West as it exists in the landscape of our minds. And yet it is the West, and Altman knows this. This is a land, like any Western territory, tormented by the tension between everyday people struggling to get by and big business coming down upon them like an iron fist, as eventually depicted in the film’s semblance of a narrative about the two central characters “saving” the town from a corporate takeover, from modernization.
The film is an anti-western, in that its strongest, sturdiest character is a female when most films in the genre eschew complicated women for a man’s world. But it is also very much a painstaking homage to the little moments that made up the soul of the West and the people who went there looking for something, anything, to make a life or simply to escape from one. If it critiques the Western for its abandonment of the female character, it also betters it by incorporating female strength into the soul of the West, into its image. This is a bending and re-mending, not a shattering, of the genre America had built its dreams of the past and future on.
Altman, as he would capture four years later in his greatest film Nashville, knows the complications of American dreams and the lies those complications audit, contour, and aspirationally aim toward. In Nashville, he would update McCabe and Mrs. Miller by connecting bicentennial politics to the dreams of country-Western music, bite-sized chunks of American Dream. For McCabe and Mrs. Miller, he went right to the source. Both reflect not only his re-reading of America and his critique of it, but his deep, abiding understanding of the good in its hopes and myths. Or, at least, the good they can serve to people who have nothing else to live on. In a sense, Altman is mocking the notion of the West found in other films, but he’s also upholding it and showing a deep care and affection for the idea of the everyday people who made their way West and, for better or worse, couldn’t escape the lives they struggled with even so.
These aren’t false people, then, but lived-in ones, and Altman’s telling their story. Even as he pokes fun at callous selfishness and lack of concern for others around them, he captures the heartbreak that led to their perpetual, eternal distance from one another. He evokes people who are eternally products of the landscape they inhabit. We cannot imagine them as anything other than products of that location. Even when we know they’ve just rolled into town, as Roger Ebert notes, it plays as if they’ve lived there forever, just waiting for Altman to roll in. The film’s most human trick though, is that when Altman says “action!,” everyone mostly just continues to sit around and mind their own business; these are characters who don’t live, or die, by the camera’s, or the audience’s, decree. More often than not, they merely keep the camera roving around, struggling for some semblance of stability, some little sense of self, in this heart-breaking, beautifully fragile, mystifying cracked-mirror of a movie.