McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Despite the fact that I have never before seen a Western, imagining what they might be like has never been difficult: saloons, guns, and alcohol must be present. McCabe and Mrs. Miller presented these “key” elements (with McCabe frequently swigging from a flask he totes around), but in a way much different from what I expected. To me, this seemed to be an entirely different genre of film (indie romance? Drama?) playing out under the guise of being a western. Rather than romancing the West or building up the ultimate showdown scene at the end, McCabe & Mrs. Miller instead portrays an image of the West that is grim and realistic.
The setting is typical of a Western; the film takes place in a small town with a brothel and a place to gamble, far more men than women, and wild, spread-out surroundings. Throughout the film, pieces of the town are still in the process of being built, which is consistent with my imaginings of the West. However, the town in the film does not seem to be a place of possibility or exploration; instead, it is grimy and depressing. The film is both literally and figuratively dark. When the characters are inside, the walls are dark wood and there are few light sources. The scenes that take place outdoors are also dark-hued in spite of the sun. Instead of romancing the West, the film seems to paint a more realistic picture of what it may have been like to build up a town from scratch.
The last scene was very unexpected and seemed to deviate most significantly from characteristic Westerns. While a typical showdown scene features a blazing sun and a brightly-lit walk of two enemies toward each other, McCabe &Mrs. Miller featured no such showdown. Instead, snow falls heavily as McCabe maneuvers to avoid the men. Instead of facing off and drawing guns, McCabe shoots two of the men sneakily. Perhaps it was this element that surprised me the most. McCabe is not confident or polished. He is not the archetypal and impenetrable hero of the Western. Instead, he is desperate to survive and will do anything he can to make sure he does. Rather than facing his enemies head-on and bravely (as the masculine ideology of the West would encourage him to do), he shoots two of the men when they do not expect it. His desperation makes him vulnerable, and consequently less masculine. Interspersed with McCabe’s moving around are shots of other townspeople warning people of the fire in another building. This back-and-forth between McCabe and the fire seems to heighten McCabe’s desperation.
The film’s portrayal of women is the only typical aspect of what I imagine of Westerns. The majority of the women shown in the film are prostitutes (even the rare wife figure is forced to become a prostitute when her husband dies). Mrs. Miller, in particular, is coarse and brisk. She is both a worker and a businesswoman, and seems to have few emotional investments. Throughout the film, McCabe seems to long for more from Mrs. Miller than she is willing to give; although she sleeps with him, she insists on being paid. It is only in the last few scenes that she even hints of feeling deeply for him, and she shows this only in her silence. It is this type of hard, emotionally-restrained woman that I would expect to survive in the West.
While McCabe & Mrs. Miller utilizes elements of typical Western films, it adds a new layer to them. The film is not one-dimensional as many Westerns are. Instead, it shows different sides of the town and its characters, from softening Mrs. Miller to showing McCabe’s desperation and vulnerability in the final scene. McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s portrayal of the West is both rounded and realistic.