McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

by Afra Nariman

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

Director: Robert Altman

Stars: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie


Altman’s cinema is one defined by binaries and power shifts. The power shift is illustrated in 3 Women (1977) via the theme of identity. In Nashville (1975), the binary being explored is viewed through the tension and paranoia of the political sphere of 1970’s American society, in relation to the society being left behind in the wake of this newly shaped society in crisis. Nashville asks: Where is our society heading next? And what does that mean for us? What cultural values should we make sure stay in tact as we undergo this shift? 

In McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1973), the binaries are seen in Altman’s characterization of the period the film takes place, the world it represents, the rapidly changing values of that world (similar to what we see in Nashville, but of a different defining period in “American” history), and how Altman revises the “rules” or “common tropes” of the Western genre within the context of American cinema. 

McCabe and Mrs. Miller operates within a space of being both meandering but also urgent — this being in line with the tonal energy of the period it portrays; of the frontier western and of residing in the last days where existing nomadically was common, yet also being parallel with the unavoidable approach of a capitalist dynasty that has overtaken American society ever since. Through the form of a revisionist Western, Altman allows us to wander this world that is clinging onto its last values, simultaneously reaching towards a new, unforgiving world order in which the characters facing this transition are seen prophetically gasping desperately for a recognizable life that is fleeting them. The film and its characters realize the onslaught of this transition’s consequences, the impact it will have moving forward and moreover, its influence on the fate of humanity generally. In what I consider one of the greatest endings in cinema, Altman shows that the ending of such a shift was always going to be undeniably a tragic one. 


Rating: 5 out of 5.

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