Writing this review is a real dilemma because the most sincere words I would use to describe this masterpiece would make me feel like paraphrasing Roger Ebert, but for one thing, he was absolutely right, this movie is perfect. It's an incredible achievement, it reaches a level of greatness so high, you feel like your eyes will never witness such cinematic perfection, such documentary-like authenticity, such beauty in ugliness. This film captures the end of the Old Western Myth through the fate of one of the most fascinating movie characters: John McCabe, brilliantly portrayed by Warren Beatty.
John McCabe embodies the Old West myth through his complex but charismatic personality. Here is a good-hearted man, a man who claims to be a businessman, but who seems to carry something deeply hidden in his conscience, in his soul. Whether it's a strength or a weakness, we can't tell in the beginning of the film. Some said he killed a guy? Is is true? McCabe doesn't care. He's here for business and means it. He builds a saloon, and supplies the distraction to the future inhabitants of the modest Presbyterian Church, a little but promising town, in the middle of nowhere. McCabe is respected because he's got charisma, humor, and the money to make him the richest, therefore the most powerful man in town. He's a strong character, a true leader with a beard like the mane of a lion whom he also seems to have the heart. Until the second protagonist of the film, Mrs. Miller, comes.
Mrs. Miller, a peculiar little woman who makes the lion look like a lamb. She talks straight-forwardly, she's a whore and proposes to provide her experience in the whore business, in other words, a partnership. The way she handles the negotiation is so convincing even McCabe can't resist. But not because he's a visionary but because he liked her at first sight, even though he has too much pride to admit it. And this movie becomes one of the greatest and most poignant romances ever portrayed.
McCabe isn't meant to be a leader, though he tries to act like one, but this is no Ford or Hawks's film. McCabe is too fragile, too human. Mrs. Miller is the tougher one and she realizes it soon. They're different, but they're complementary. And she wants to protect him, because she, too, developed a fondness for him (it wouldn't have been a romance otherwise) The tragedy of their romance is that if Mrs. Miller had McCabe's personality and vice versa, things would have probably turned differently, for good. But it didn't. McCabe goofing around lead him to commit a fatal mistake. When two agents from a major corporation offer to buy him out, he doesn't get the idea and he bargains. McCabe is just too tragically dumb to figure out that his refusal to "sign the contract" signed his own death warrant. How ironic, this man who doesn't want to share his money, his land, still accepts to share the woman he loves. There's no place for good-hearted men, it's the time of industry, business and majors and McCabe already belongs to another era.
One particular scene illustrates this idea, and it's almost painful to remember it. It's the famous bridge scene, a reminiscent of Elisha Cook Jr.'s character death in "Shane". The victim is a gentle funny looking kid who spent good time with the whores and happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong moment. Never had a death shocked me and saddened me so much. The guy was good-hearted, like McCabe, and he was killed because as soon as he crossed the bridge facing that little punk (one of the few characters I couldn't wait to see die), he couldn't go back, even by acting friendly. Just like McCabe sealed his fate and wasn't even given the choice to reconsider the offer. Miller knew he was doomed, Miller, also too proud to admit her love, making her partner a customer even in love. Money was just her shell, but look at her in the bed scene when she's smiling to him, the light shining from her eyes is nothing but love, and this is the most beautiful smile ever captured in film.
McCabe's demise is another tribute to the greatness of the film. The guy is chased by the colossal villainous Butler and his two side-kicks including the previously mentioned punk. What does McCabe do? He chickens out, and tries to escape, at least this is his first reaction. Another element that makes us feel so much sympathy for McCabe, forget Eastwood's speech in "Unforgiven" : 'Hell of a thing killing a man'. It doesn't need words in Altman's masterpiece, just show McCabe running from death and we get the idea. This climactic sequence is so thrilling we feel like being chased with McCabe. And when he kills the villains one by one, this concludes his fascinating story arc by denying Butler's statement "McCabe never killed a guy before". After all, the guy might be human, fragile, dead, but he's the Old West.
As McCabe is slowly buried in snow, Mrs. Miller is in an opium den, looking at the light with melancholy, feeling like a precious part of herself is progressively fading to death ... melancholy, snow, death, we're absorbed in an ocean of emotions we wouldn't expect from a western, a feeling of profound sadness, why such awful things happen to good people, why? because no matter why, when something comes to an end, it must end. It's called tragedy, it's tragically sad ... this is the saddest movie I've seen, the end of an era, of a myth, of a genre. It doesn't preach sadness, it just illustrates the doom of living in a world where a good heart has nowhere to live, and two good hearts nowhere to live together.
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