Tuesday, July 20, 2010

McCabe and Mrs. Miller. A-

You know all those classic Western tales where the cowboys and outlaws go to a saloon and often times to the whorehouse as well. These places are sort of engrained in the culture of the Western. They're always there, but never fully considered. They work as sort of the backdrop for more important events to unfold. So if Robert Altman were to make a Western, it seems only fitting that he'd make one about a saloon and a whorehouse. Altman, one of the cinema's most unusual directors, was great at showing real people in strange stories. He does that with McCabe and Mrs. Miller by establishing the characters and the story and then showing the almost impossible tragedies that ensue. McCabe (Warren Beatty) rides into the small, destitute town of Presbyterian Church with all the swagger and confidence in the world. He's not cocky, but he's smart and very determined. He proceeds to construct a saloon and whorehouse for the town. Things are going good and then get even better when Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) arrives and offers to do business with McCabe. Probably the most dignified prostitute ever filmed, Mrs. Miller not only brings wealth to McCabe but also forms a love interest with him. At this point Altman has a very original tale, but instead of keeping it entirely his own, he honors the traditional Western by bringing in the prototypical 'bad men of the West.' Two men arrive and want to buy McCabe's business, which he refuses despite being offered a pretty penny. It turns out that the company the men work for has a history of killing anyone who doesn't agree to sell land, which results in a conflict Western fans are pretty familiar with. I really liked what Altman did with this movie. It's sort of a modern Western with a soundtrack from Leonard Cohen and a group of characters who don't bide by that classic moral code of the Old West. It's a very human story that's exactly about the two people mentioned in the title. The movie is Altman at his best. It's an epic told on a small scale. Most of all it's a grieving tale that tells us in the Old West there wasn't always a hero, and that even the man who tries to do what is right doesn't come out okay in the end.

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