It must be so depressing to be a director of ensemble films. Not because of any limitations of the genre, but because of the knowledge you'll never equal Robert Altman. That great maverick of American cinema has permanently identified the genre with him, with sweeping, incisive dramas involving impossible numbers of characters. For this film, Altman applies that approach to the Western genre, and crafts one of the ten greatest entries in the history of the genre.
At the start of the film, a man (Warren Beatty) enters the town of Presbyterian Church, a homely little village in the Pacific Northwest whose log cabins seem to be as much an extension of the surrounding forest as I imagine they were when they were trees. The man walks into the local tavern, surveys it, returns to his horse for a cloth, and comes back in to play some poker. Even before everyone sits down for the game the bar seems crowded, already overflowing with characters Altman does not introduce but who still have establishing dialogue. From the start the conversations overlap; the townsfolk wonder who this strange man is and why he walked out of the tavern as soon as he stepped in, but they could care less when he tacitly indicates he wants to play.
The man, whom we later learn is John McCabe, came to this town to start up a cheap brothel. His seemingly friendly game establishes his intellectual dominance over the simple denizens, silently letting them muse on a rumor that he's a gunfighter as he slowly makes ties through cards. At one point he calmly asks who owns a section of property in town, but at this point he seems like one of them and they think nothing odd nor sinister of his request.
In true Altman style, the camera darts not between individuals but between groups; people dart between social circles, inquiring about this stranger, yet not out of suspicion. Though the gunfighter rumor spreads, it carries with it more intrigue than distrust. He enters town not a legendary desert warrior, as most Westerns would have us treat all newcomers to peaceful towns, but as a soft-spoken businessman.
At the game's end McCabe's earned a nice bit of profit, and uses it to purchase 3 women to get his brothel off the ground. He must not have won as much as I thought, because he doesn't exactly pick the cream of the crop: one of the whores is fat, another toothless. But they establish McCabe as a permanent resident, and he views them more as an investment than "display-worthy."
Then the other title character enters town. Constance Miller (Julie Christie), a professional Madam addicted to opium, sees McCabe's makeshift brothel and offers to run the business better than he ever could. Constance, like many in her profession surely, has outgrown sex, using it only to make a living. She tells McCabe that he doesn't know women so she'll watch over them and make sure they're healthy and paying their share; she'll also import some classier prostitutes from her old gigs.
With this basic setup Altman crafts one of the saddest films I've ever seen. McCabe, who speaks chiefly in profane mumblings, occasionally lets some of the real John out from beneath his outer shell. "I got poetry in me!" he cries finally to himself unable to disguise his feelings for Constance any longer, yet unwilling to actually tell her. Yet Miller, like McCabe is too individualistic to be compatible; their only difference is that Miller knows where McCabe's romanticism will lead: eventually he turn into her, broken by the truth of the matter.
Other stories end in tragedy as well. When a man dies, his widow (Shelley Duvall) speaks with Constance. She knows, as does Constance, that she must become a whore in order to provide for herself. Miller offers the closest thing she can offer to comfort without lying, but it leaves you feeling empty. Elsewhere, a young cowboy played by Keith Carradine runs into a gunslinger who forces the lad into a duel. Carradine tries to charm his way out of it, but as the town looks on he knows he's going to die as much as the onlookers do.
The scene works as a parallel for McCabe's story; at the midpoint of the film, two businessmen ride into town and offer to buy out McCabe's property, and he drunkenly refuses. When he laughs about it to Miller, her face tells us how badly he just messed up before she ever speaks. She tells him that he better hope the two come back, and if they do to agree to their offer. The men do come back, make an even higher offer (though not by much) and McCabe gleefully refuses again. When he sobers up the full implication of his actions hits him and he searches for the two men, but they're long gone. He tempted fate, just as Carradine's character did, even though neither really did much. But there's is an unforgiving land, and many in this climate are born to die.
This second half brings the full pain of the relationship between McCabe and Miller to the fore, resulting in that revealing soliloquy with the perfect line about his inner poet, but Constance is the one really in pain; she, like John, knows he signed his death certificate, but she's the one who'll have to live with the grief.
The inevitable showdown between McCabe and the bounty hunters dispatched by the scorned Harrison Shaugnessy Company is one of the most inventive in Westerns, precisely because it meticulously identifies and dismantles the criteria of the Western shootout. McCabe, certainly never heroic in any of this, tries to evade his pursuers through heavy snowfall, rather than meeting his foes at the town square at high noon. The chief bounty hunter wields not a revolver or pistol but a giant elephant gun.
As McCabe meets his fate we are left only with Miller, who never acts like the mourning widow of the fallen hero. When we see her at the end she drifts off into an opium haze; though she certainly felt something for McCabe, now he's just another memory for her to try to purge through drugs. In a film full of sadness and regret, this scene stands above them all.
Aiding this depressing dirge is the beautiful yet haunting cinematography from the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond, who makes terrific use of widescreen by setting up characters by filling up the screen, be it with the awesome spectacle of the encroaching forest that seeks to reclaim its felled brothers back into the fold or stuff the frame with people. He also uses a number of filters on the lenses to give it a dreamy quality, making the film seem even more elegiac.
When you get right down to it, this is the death-knell of the Western. Altman cuts through our notions of the West and presents us with a truer vision though, unlike other revisionist films, not one filled with violence. Instead, he paints the West as a place of great sadness, where lofty dreams met unfathomable hardship and forced people to harden with them. Though he takes great care to get the look right, he scores the film chiefly with the songs of Leonard Cohen, an anachronism, yet one that perfectly fits what he's trying to say; Cohen's folk tales paint a portrait of a dying West as much as the images. In this world, McCabe represents the romanticized notion of the West, Miller the cold hard truth that remains after the dreams die, and the townspeople stand in for us. They see this all unfold, yet before it's even over they've moved on to more trivial things. If this is not Robert Altman's best film, it places at an indistinguishable second behind Nashville. See it now.