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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Robert Altman’s ‘McCabe and Mrs. Miller’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Robert Altman's 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled
out for attention. 
This is the Criticwire Classic of the

“McCabe and Mrs. Miller”
Dir: Robert Altman
Criticwire Average: A+

Few films use winter as memorably or as effectively as “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” Robert Altman’s anti-western masterpiece doesn’t just make it an element to fend against, but a character, a representation of both the wild’s harshness and the west’s cold indifference to humanity, and a force to bring people together (either in a saloon or as a real community) and wear down and destroy anyone who breaks apart from it or doesn’t fit in. That’s made especially clear in the film’s final gunfight, a slow-paced chase through the snow and ice that finally brings down the film’s men of violence, but throughout the film the whole town of Presbyterian Church has to interact with it, protect itself against it, and find any way to escape it, even if it means leaving one way of life behind. 

McCabe (Warren Beatty) seems to be a man of that way of life, a tough-talking braggart who dominates a group of more soft-spoken men, an apparent old west hero if there ever was one. Mrs. Constance Miller (Julie Christie) sees through him, partnering with him to build a whorehouse and proving herself the shrewder businessman. When the town becomes richer and two men from a mining company try to buy the land from McCabe, he tries for more money, only to learn that the company is known for killing men who turn them down. 

Beatty was never better than when playing men trying to act tougher and smarter than they were, and he gives his best performance as McCabe, a coward posing as a gunslinger who learns the hard way that there’s no room in business or civilization even for fake cowboys. Christie is just as good as the smarter but no less tragic Miller, an opium-addicted madam who falls in love with the real McCabe even as she sees him practically sprinting towards his doom, but the two are too tentative about their business relationship to come together. Their timidity contrasts with the town’s growing camaraderie, which builds in a series of asides throughout the film only to climax in an act of communal heroism that beautifully contrasts the final loneliness of the film’s protagonists. It’s among Altman’s greatest films because its grandest themes – the end of the Old West, the rise of modern civilization – come through in an intimate story, one that never reduces its characters to symbolic figures. Paired with Leonard Cohen’s mournful songs and Vilmos Zsigmond’s evocative, hazy cinematography, it’s the most emotional movie Altman ever made.

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

Edward Copeland, Edward Copeland’s Tangents

The closing act of the movie, while it is a kill-or-be-killed sequence should be something that you’d describe as suspenseful, but “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is nothing if not about mood. Certainly, we have developed a certain affection for John McCabe, but Altman doesn’t direct it as your usual edge-of-your-seat action climax — it’s just another form of the daily fight for survival in the frequently harsh conditions where they live. Read more.

More thoughts from the web:

Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times

McCabe and Mrs. Miller are an organic part of this community. We are aware of course, that they’re played by Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, but rarely have stars been used so completely for their talents rather than their fame. We don’t ever think much about McCabe being Warren Beatty, and Mrs. Miller being Julie Christie; they’re there along with everybody else in town, and the movie just happens to be about their lives. Read more.

Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine

Robert Altman’s anti-western McCabe & Mrs. Miller, like “Thieves Like Us” and “The Long Goodbye,” is so self-contained and effortlessly executed to be read as a deliberate exercise in genre deconstruction. Altman’s obsession with the myth of frontier life (its destruction, its re-civilization) is a mere backdrop for a struggle that pits the individual against big business. If not the greatest western ever made, McCabe & Mrs. Miller could be the most authentic representation of wilderness life ever put on screen. If the film feels like it’s never really about any one thing, it’s because Altman wants it to be about everything. Read more.

Josh Larsen, Larsen on Film

Visually, Altman and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond emphasize the harshness of the period setting in a way few Westerns have. More than a soundstage production or even a location shoot, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” has the feel of life being lived on the edge of survival. Presbyterian Church isn’t a stop along a dusty road that leads from one studio back lot to another, but a true outpost – an outcropping in the wild, clinging to some semblance of structure as the Pacific Northwest winds howl around. Read more.

Noel Murray, The Dissolve

Altman used to say he never cared much about stories, only behavior. But what makes “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” his best film is that its rambling, semi-improvised vignettes of frontier life become more focused as the movie rolls on. McCabe & Mrs. Miller eventually develops enough of a plot that it can wrap up with an honest-to-goodness action sequence. That wintry shootout is the inevitable outcome of half a dozen or so small squabbles, which get increasingly dangerous. Read more.

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