Revisionism is one of the few ways filmmakers can look back on the products that formulated their initial ideas and understand what went right or wrong. It is how artists can grow, and as an audience, we should often try and appreciate why it is so important to indulge this style now and then. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is not as odd as it may sound, with its revisionist western-style cutting through with clarity under director Robert Altman, who attempts to understand where and why the Hollywood western was dying. Gone were the days of Henry Fonda and John Wayne dominating the big-screen, they had moved to pastures new. But Altman and leading pair Warren Beatty and Julie Christie were simply wondering “why?”.
There is a time and place to ask and answer such a question, and for me, Altman is not in the right place to ask. He finds himself commentating on the olden tropes of the Hollywood western, reminding us of what they did so well, yet also what they were short-changing us with. For that to work, his revisionism ebbs away, and homage soon bleeds into the picture. Altman does present moments of antagonism from a protagonist, and vice versa, but there are never moments that stick in the mind that aren’t fully technical. A gorgeous and vivid piece of scenery surrounds these characters, who at times are charming and witty, but they are as empty and light as the snowy tundra and beautiful landscape that encompasses their journey.
A revisionist piece is only so good as the genre it looks to revise. Hollywood westerns with their young and well-to-do cowboy heroes are no match for the grizzled strangers that trot through the deserts of the Spaghetti Western. It is unfair to compare McCabe & Mrs. Miller to the likes of such a sub-genre, but when it riffs on the Hollywood stylings, it is not all that interesting. There is a gap in the knowledge of Altman, and his thorough Hollywood attitude is a bit lacklustre and safe at times. He lingers on darker moments sometimes, but much of its greasy gluttony and harsh tones are found in the Lee Van Cleef or Sergio Leone films of the 1960s, and with more focus and desperation within them.
Certainly not a bad feature, but not quite the hallmark of revisionism in this period. Altman questions what the point of the Hollywood hero and all those other bells and whistles are for, but cannot help but engage with them, as well as criticise them. It creates a slight hypocrisy, of which Beatty and Christie fall into. It does not out-do the contemporaries at the time, either, with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo and later still with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven both offering the same themes and styles, but stronger and varied. McCabe & Mrs. Miller does indeed blur the line between right and wrong, but to what end? Effective at times, but not entirely memorable either, and although the sad brutality of the piece is realised by the end, so too is its understanding, or lack thereof, of the anti-hero.