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  • Writer's pictureDomenic

McCabe and Mrs. Miller| Review

Updated: May 31, 2022

When I sit down to watch a Robert Altman film the first thing that comes to mind is how will it reflect some aspect of America. Through discovering and watching his films, I've noticed that nearly every film reflects or satirizes some part of American culture. His 1975 film, Nashville, reflected on and critiqued the Country Music Industry. The Player reflected on the Film Industry and the many characters involved with it. While I have yet to see it, many critics noted how M.A.S.H satirized the Vietnam War and the Military as a whole. McCabe and Mrs. Miller is no different.

The Western genre is one that is very complicated. There are many ways one can approach the genre. Many cinephiles and critics define it as a reflection on the American Frontier and the people of before, and also a landmark in cinema history. However, many people have also pointed out how extremely racist and sexist many of the films that belong to the genre. That's just two sides to it I find most popular. For years, the American Western stayed relatively the same --- racist portrayals of Native Americans, desert-like locations, gunslingers, etc. These traits were found in nearly every western up until around the mid-1960s. Film as a whole drastically changed during that period of time. Filmmakers broke ground with more cinematically focused storytelling, not to mention the multitudes of other improvements and changes applied to filmmaking. Spaghetti Westerns emerged during this time as well, though they received mixed reviews from American audiences. American politics majorly changed too. The assassination of JFK and the Civil Rights Movements brought in a new era of America, one very different from the past. Both of these factors basically flipped the common tropes found in American Westerns. Just as America and American Filmmaking were changing, so did the American Western.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller follows an almost neo-western storyline. McCabe, a gambler, decides to head out to the West in hopes of creating business. He eventually creates business after business to the small mining town he currently stays at. One of the businesses he creates eventually leads him to meet Mrs. Miller. They work together in establishing the town as a prosperous industry.

To put it simply, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is an all-around technical masterpiece. The direction, photography, and writing are nothing short of excellent. You couldn't go one minute of the film without being astonished by the level of craftsmanship on display. At first, the photography seems a little off, yet it slowly grows on you as the film goes on. The story follows a nearly perfect structure, one that ties up every loose end while still leaving the viewer intrigued. The hidden cat and mouse aspect comes into play at just the right moment of the film to really cement the structure as nothing short of mastery. Not to mention the distinguished performances from Julie Christie and Warren Beatty, which border career-defining if not for Don't Look Now for Christie and Bonnie and Clyde for Beatty. Conclusively, McCabe and Mrs. Miller does everything required to be labeled as a classic. I also would like to mention how the music perfectly fits with the tone and feeling coming off from the film. However, it does much more than just that.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller resembles a unique time in America and film. It primarily focuses on a narrative that plays in contrasts with the politics at the time, while also reflecting on America's foundation and history. While I think that film still comes across as a masterpiece to a viewer that doesn't examine it in the same reflective lens, the themes expressed almost singlehandedly establish its masterpiece status. Bouncing off what I said earlier about the history of America and film during the 1960s, McCabe and Mrs. Miller adds to those ideas in reflecting on America. The film follows the wandering businessman in search of success yet a stranger in a new land, which leads towards subtext about American capitalism and foundation. Slowly but surely the businessman builds a towering empire of business, just as American did in the past. The film also resembles the transitional period America faced when crossing over into more of a settlement phase. Rather than showcasing horses coming into town, instead, Altman shows a steam engine slowly rolling and making its way. And that's just one example of how Altman exemplifies this theme. I've mentioned twice how this film reflects on America's past, but I haven't yet explained how it also reflects on the American Western. One thing I've noticed after watching countless westerns is that they all have well developed yet flanderized and brief characters. The characters almost seem like they are what keeps the plot moving, but not in the sense of a McGuffin, and once the film is over, what you're left with is close to no emphasis on character. I think that Altman noticed this and thus brought change to it. What really matters in McCabe and Mrs. Miller is not about the town and if it'll succeed or not, it's about the characters and their inner conflicts. The success of the town is what keeps the plot and audience intrigued with the characters, and not the other way around.

It may not be my favorite western, but it's very high up there. Right now Rio Bravo is my fourth favorite film, so no other Western really beats it. The same goes for The Searchers at #6 and Once Upon A Time In the West at #14. And those films are all great and definitely some of my favorites, but apart from One Upon A Time In the West, they don't really resemble what I look for in a western. Once Upon A Time In the West has nearly the same things I look for in a western --- that being shootouts, landscapes, and beautiful women--- except for the reflective theme aspect. Rio Bravo is a great hang out movie that also happens to feature some of what I'm looking for in a Western, but it lacks the landscapes. The Searchers has what I'm looking for in a western too, however, it's extremely racist in its depictions of Native Americans, which ultimately puts me off a lot, and is primarily why I don't consider it my second or third favorite film. Yet, McCabe and Mrs. Miller has all those attributes rolled up into an excellent work of art. This film resembles exactly what I'm looking for in a Western --- not to mention how cool I think it looks for a Western to feature snow, definitely got to check out The Great Silence for the exact same reason.

Timestamp: November 2020

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