Starring: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie
Director: Robert Altman
Mood: If dark and gloomy days are your entire existence right now but you still want to watch a Western.
The ONLY reason I watched McCabe & Mrs. Miller was to complete my ranking of Keith Carradine’s westerns.
What I grasped about the movie before watching it was inconclusive:
- It’s starring Warren Beatty and Dick Tracy is one of my favourite movies of all time, but then I realized that Beatty is my least favourite thing about it
- Roger Ebert called this movie “perfect”, a word he rarely used, but I rarely agree with Roger Ebert
- Online descriptions tout it as an “anti-Western” that “turns the Wild West on its ear” – nine times out of ten Revisionist Westerns I’ve watched mean well, but have tedious cinematography or storytelling (or both)
Here’s my quick take: I suspect the people who love McCabe & Mrs. Miller are film snobs, because it is a f*cking CHORE to sit through all of the metaphors and symbolism and director Robert Altman’s famously cluttered style.
For anyone who likes their Westerns fast, fun, or both, you’ll get none of that here. The acting is quite good and the cinematography is a work of art. But at the end of the day it’s a bleak, soggy Western drama that’s only to be consumed if you’re in a similarly bleak, soggy mood.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller takes place in Washington state, 1902. And before the opening credits even finished, I figured out two things:
- Leonard Cohen’s soundtrack is too hippy-dippy for me
- I know this dark, wet forest scenery all too well
Yup, McCabe & Mrs. Miller was shot in West Vancouver and Squamish! The entire movie has that distinctively dark, drab Pacific Northwest vibe that those of us who grew up there know as one of the region’s two seasons.
John McCabe (Warren Beatty) arrives in the tiny town of Presbyterian Church, determined to set himself up a whorehouse. Rumour has it that he’s a fierce gunfighter, and he gladly feeds this belief to gain a position of respect.
Then Constance Miller (Julie Christie) shows up in town, and she promptly lets McCabe know everything he’s doing wrong with his business. Her blunt, unapologetic manner intimidates McCabe into becoming her partner in a promising brothel enterprise.
But nothing is actually ‘promising’ or even slightly good in this town. McCabe enjoys drinking and his reputation a little too much, and it’s not long before he pisses off a powerful mining company. If the weather is any indication, things aren’t going to get better.
Julie Christie shines as Constance Miller, although few moments in this movie give even a sad twinkle so that’s not saying much. But the moment she barges into McCabe’s life, you’re bulldozed by her confidence. She’s unquestionably one of the best female characters in Westerns.
It doesn’t even feel like acting, Christie’s manner in the role is so natural and fun to watch. Up until her first scene McCabe is all loud and ordering people around, but once she joins the story he’s stunned into a permanent state of muttering to himself.
Beatty is good as McCabe, and some critics even said he was great. I don’t know that anybody else could have necessarily done MORE with the role; I guess I just found the character to be lacking in personality and, ultimately, disappointing.
I think that’s the point of the movie, though. When Beatty is belching and farting and grumbling in his room, or stammering and backpedaling in front of hitmen, you’re supposed to feel like “oh, I guess he wasn’t what he seemed and nothing in this bleak, soggy life ever is.”
- Fun Fact #1: Robert Altman wanted Elliott Gould for the part of McCabe – that’s Ross and Monica’s dad, people – and Patricia Quinn aka Magenta from The Rocky Horror Picture Show for Mrs. Miller. I wish I could see that crazy version!
Honestly, everybody else is background noise. Literally. Director Altman’s thing, as seen on M.A.S.H. and in his other films, was letting everybody in a room talk at the same time with no focus on any conversation in particular.
This was meant to help you appreciate the music and the feel of the room, but the result is it alienates the heck out of you. The characters are never introduced, they were just there before you got there, and since you can’t hear distinct dialogue you can’t really pick up names. There was a guy in an early scene who was considering getting a moustache, and later he had one and it was a damn fine moustache, but I couldn’t tell you which actor that was.
- Fun Fact #2: Altman had the 50+ extras make up their own characters and pick their own clothes, and then just ‘be’ those people for three months while filming. The set was built while the town is built in the movie; the crew wore costumes as well, and used tools appropriate for the period, so that they could work while scenes were shot.
Oh, and although this was Keith Carradine’s first-ever role and he’s pretty charming, but he gets this dramatic entrance only to exit soon after. What I liked was how wide-eyed and earnest he was as The Cowboy, almost like he was so excited about his future career in movies that he was just stoked on life.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller was the WRONG movie to watch when I’ve been stuck indoors for the last three months because of cold, miserable weather. But I don’t think I’d have been into it at any time of year. It’s just so somber and hopeless and it goes absolutely nowhere despite including a seriously tense final showdown.
I can acknowledge that it’s a high quality film. The critics who did like it praised the style and the pace and the meaning of it all. It’s on AFI’s Top 10 Westerns. Ebert gave it four stars.
Others thought that trying to make people think about their pitiful existence while not being able to pick up half of what the characters say was a mistake.
I’m on that team. The last thing I want to do while watching a Western is feel like I should be out enjoying the fading moments of my pathetic life instead of watching a damn Western!