The movie is about Mr. McCabe, who wants to start his own saloon and brothel. He is vaguely infamous - people whisper that he is a gunfighter and that he has a reputation, but not much else comes of this idea. He goes off with a few haggard looking prostitutes to start his small empire. There is so much thick mud and grossness. Mrs. Miller shows up - a professional madame with a sly British accent, which shows she means business. She convinces McCabe that she can help make him more successful and brings in some more classy girls. True to her word, she does help everything succeed. They start a kind of romance, which we don't really see as much as suddenly realize when abruptly, they are going to bed together. Some agents come to buy out the successful town, and McCabe stupidly refuses their offer before Mrs. Miller convinces him that he was dumb to do that. They dispatch some bounty hunters to kill him. McCabe is clearly afraid of them, and the showdown lacks the standoff, the tense feeling that westerns usually have. Before McCabe is even wounded, Mrs. Miller is depressed, knowing the inevitable will happen. McCabe is mortally wounded and dies by himself, sitting in the snow, while life goes on around him. A non-heroic death in a genre that is so overrun with hero characters.
I love all of these little unconventional touches. It is the side of the west that I never have seen in a movie until now. Instead of coming into an established town to either fix things or hunt someone, we see a town being built from the ground up. If there ever was a less glamorous side to the west, this movie shows it. People knee deep in mud trying to make a saloon, the struggle of just getting supplies and medical attention when you are so far out from anyone else. Usually women are not really a centerpiece - sometimes they exist to motivate the main hero by being kidnapped, or they get raped, and exist only as one-dimensional victims. Mrs. Miller is a prostitute and a drug addict, but she is smart, and she is powerful. Ebert mentions the meaning of title, saying "Study the title. "McCabe & Mrs. Miller." Not "and," as in a couple, but "&," as in a corporation. It is a business arrangement. Everything is business with her" (The Great Movies, 293). She might not be able to be a stereotypical "powerful" woman, but being a business woman, and helping a business succeed, is more than most women are ever granted in westerns.
Even the showdown is anti-climatic. We are used to these being the focal point of a western film. We know how they look - we see low shots between the legs of the men involved. We see hands twitching on holsters. Even if we are not watching The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, we hear the music. There is dust. In the utmost cliche, there are tumbleweeds. Here, there is snow. People get shot in the back. Our hero is killed. He dies alone and no one really seems to notice. Instead of the music we imagine, Leonard Cohen dominates the soundtrack. It doesn't fit our expectations - which is exactly what I have wanted from a western film for so long.
I don't know how a movie like this would sit with someone who isn't me. Most people I know like John Wayne. I know some people who brashly declare that they hate Italian westerns. I guess if the thought of John Wayne makes you uncomfortable, watch it. Or if you love Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone westerns, this is for you. But you have to be open to the genre being broken and subverted. Sergio Leone films are a far reach from this movie - Altman is even stranger and less familiar. He gives us a part of the west that we never saw. The part that is actually ugly and boring, like it probably was. I wrote a western because I wanted to write something to show that weird, vaguely-Victorian bore that it might have actually been. Now I could see some of that, some of what I had wanted - which is why I'm so strung out by this movie. If you watch it, let me know what you think.
Have any of you seen McCabe & Mrs. Miller? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on McCabe & Mrs. Miller