Film critics all around the world love McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The late Roger Ebert went so far as to call the movie “perfect”. In fact, this movie has not only been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, it also sits easy at #8 on AFI’s Top Ten Best Westerns.
It is, naturally, my least favorite western to-date.
McCabe (Warren Beatty) partners with Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) to open up a gambling hall/brothel. It’s all going rather splendidly until a mining company tries to buy them out.
1. There’s a case to be made that I would like McCabe & Mrs. Miller better on a second viewing. I’ve seen three other Robert Altman films besides this one, and I didn’t care for any of them on the first go around: I enjoyed elements of Gosford Park but ultimately found it too slow; I actively disliked almost everything about The Player, and I hard time accepting anyone other than Alan Alda as Hawkeye in MASH. On a second showing, though, I switched my tune — at least on Gosford Park and The Player. I haven’t tried MASH again, so I’m not sure about that one — I think I might still have trouble separating the show from the film, but it’s at least conceivable that I could take less issue with other elements, like pacing. (Pacing seems to be one of my biggest complaints with Altman, but it’s also something that I know usually deserves a second chance.)
So, yes. McCabe & Mrs. Miller could be like other Altman films I’ve seen. If I try it again in a year or two, I might feel completely differently about it.
I kind of doubt it, though.
2. The pacing is only one of my problems with this movie, although admittedly, it’s a significant one. McCabe & Mrs. Miller gets off to a damn slow start. I wasn’t remotely interested until Julie Christie showed up, and that didn’t happen for a good half hour. And while there are some benefits to Altman’s typical “let the audience eavesdrop on the characters” approach to filmmaking, I think overall, the story suffers for it.
3. My biggest problem with this movie, though, is that the relationship between McCabe and Mrs. Miller never quite plays out for me.
There are individual scenes between them that I like. (Especially the one where Mrs. Miller argues that she can run the brothel better than he can. Man, that’s awesome.) But I don’t know that their relationship builds enough for me, that I see enough change in it. I don’t want to get into spoilers too much, but I feel like the end of the movie — and really, kind of the whole story — hangs on the idea that these two characters have become fully entangled in each other’s lives. The basis of that entanglement doesn’t have to be Love or anything — I’m not trying to turn this into an epic romance — but I do need to feel like these two have become hugely significant to one another, even if that significance is based purely on financial need and future aspirations.
But, unfortunately, I never really felt that way — I think because their individual scenes don’t link together all that well. Like, there’s this one moment between them near the end of the film, and on its own, it’s not a bad scene. In that particular scene, I can tell that McCabe and Mrs. Miller are supposed to be more than just business partners to one another. But I don’t feel like the movie’s earned that moment. Throughout the film, I haven’t bought the arc of their relationship, and that’s a serious issue for me.
4. It must be said, though, that Julie Christie is kind of awesome. She got a Best Actress nod for her work here, and since she’s clearly the best thing in this movie, good for her. (Not that the other actors are bad — I’m just not convinced they have much to do. But hey, Rene Auberjonois! Also, an impossibly young Keith Carradine.)
5. As far as Warren Beatty goes . . . I think he does what he’s supposed to do, but I struggle with McCabe as a protagonist. On one hand, he goes against some common western tropes about the mysterious man from out of town, which is kind of great. (Altman called this movie the “anti-western,” which makes me feel like I should like it a whole lot more than I actually did.) On the other hand . . . McCabe’s not hugely likable and, more importantly, he’s just not terribly compelling. As an idea, McCabe is sort of interesting, but as an actual character, he feels awfully flat. Which is basically how I felt about the whole movie.
6. Although, hey, maybe that’s because I couldn’t hear half of it. Good Lord. Between Altman’s eavesdropper-y approach, my shitty hearing, and . . . I don’t know, 1971 sound quality? Yeah, I had my volume up to, like, 55, and I was still struggling to catch all the dialogue.
7. You know who I could hear just fine, though? Leonard Cohen. Jesus Christ.
This is the first five minutes/opening credits of the film — and unless you’re worried about being spoiled for Warren Beatty’s frightening fur coat, you’re safe to watch. The music here, and everywhere else in this movie, is by Leonard Cohen, and I’m aware that the Bohemian Music Gods are about to strike me dead at any moment, but apparently I only need Cohen in small doses because wow. This score felt intrusive as hell to me. I actually like the song above just fine — it fits pretty well with the mood of the film — but Leonard Cohen between every other scene? Too much. Way too much.
8. Finally, before my very brief Spoiler Section, I do like the look of this movie. A lot of the cinematography is very well done. None of the people are ridiculously good-looking. The town is kind of ugly, and there’s a lot of bad teeth to go around. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is kind of the opposite of romanticized, and that’s sort of neat.
Unfortunately, I don’t think a good attempt at authenticity makes up for sub-par storytelling.
From the moment he arrives in town, everyone assumes that McCabe is this badass killer dude, but it’s clear relatively early on that McCabe isn’t a badass of any kind. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, either, and he seriously screws up while badly attempting to negotiate with the mining company. When he (finally) realizes his life’s in danger, he tries to backpedal as fast as he can, but it’s too late: three hired guns are out to kill him.
The last fifteen minutes of the movie or so, where McCabe and the hired guns sneak around town trying to kill one another isn’t bad. I just preferred it in High Noon, is all. (Although I’m definitely all for the “hiding and shooting bad guys in the back” approach.)
In the end, McCabe kills the last guy by playing dead. Unfortunately he’s still been shot to shit and dies anyway, sitting up in a snowbank far away from everyone else. Meanwhile, Mrs. Miller is an opium den, dreaming away. The final shot of McCabe is a powerful image, and it stuck with me for the rest of the night, but if I gave a shit about him one way or the other, it would have hit a lot harder. The same goes for his relationship with Mrs. Miller — if I bought into their relationship at all, the juxtaposition between their final moments would have had so much more impact. But since I don’t . . . . I don’t really care.
This is a very bleak film, but at the end, I didn’t really feel sad. Mostly, I just felt relieved that it was over. Also, a little bit of this:
I know your pain, Fred Savage. I know your pain.
Playing against tropes can be a lot of fun, and Julie Christie’s awesome, but I just didn’t connect much to this story at all.
It’s okay if you’re not good at math. Even basic math — we all have our flaws. But if you can’t add 16 +9 in under twenty seconds, you probably shouldn’t be making major financial decisions for the business by yourself.