“…snow was… softly falling …upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill…It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
- ‘The Dead’, James Joyce
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)is often cited by critics as among the best films ever made. There is no single element that elevates the film, aside from the fact that all the elements are somehow refracted through the creatively aggressive mind of Robert Altman.
It’s set in 1902 in a dreadful little Washington State town, ironically named Presbyterian Church. Or maybe not so ironically – you see, with Altman, irony is never clear. John McCabe (Warren Beatty) arrives, convinces the dull-eyed townspeople that he’s a man of importance, and quickly sets up a brothel.
Mrs. Constance Miller (Julie Christie), replete with a cockney accent (Altman often pursued the eccentric character grace) and in little time overpowers McCabe’s limited business sense, becoming a partner in the skin trade. Oh yes, she’s also a confirmed opium addict, something that runs like sporadic feedback through the tale.
A successful mining company is interested in buying out McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but McCabe, for very human (if not Shakespearean-type) reasons, declines, an act which propels the action to its poetic conclusion.
For in many ways, this film is a poem, set to the music of Leonard Cohen, whose dirge-like voice and compositions moan as a lethargic, tone-deaf Greek chorus, monochromatic and hypnotic….just like…snow.There aren’t many films that use snow as a binding metaphor (Mom Oncle Antoine is an equal), colluding theme, character and conversation.
The snow is pixie dust that gives the film an odd, other-worldly quality, a hushed, isolated land as if ruled by a playful forest queen, who is more than willing to invite the dead under her white, soft sheets.