‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’
Director:
Robert Altman
Stars: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie
Rating: R
5 (out of 5) Globes

The reissue of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” arrives on the heels of two tragedies — one considerably worse than the other, but both gutting. The lesser evil is the utter failure of “Rules Don’t Apply,” Warren Beatty’s first film as an actor in 15 years and 19 as a director. It got itself a mediocre Tomatoscore, but that in no way betrays the truly strange, eccentric, disarmingly wacky and fascinating fever dream that is — one, sadly, always destined to play to audiences of one (appropriate though that is, given the subject is Howard Hughes).

But the calamity that really hurts is the passing of Leonard Cohen. A film is (until cinema dies, anyway) eternal, ready to be discovered whenever; a person, obviously, is not, even if their art remains. Watching (or re-watching) Robert Altman’s 1971 career peak thus becomes a bittersweet experience: It contains one of Beatty’s best screen turns and three Cohen songs from 1967 — this, despite being a Western, even a "revisionist" one, set in 1902.

It’s difficult putting into words why Cohen goes so well with a movie set decades — truly, it's as though they were forged at the beginning of time itself. And yet most of the movie’s power lies beyond words. It’s in the gauzy, faded images containing beauty and ugliness. It’s in the bottomless and indescribable sadness of the final minutes. The words you do hear don’t tend to mean anything. They’re idle chatter, deployed by people long demoralized by dreams that never came true. With the exception of Julie Christie’s brassy Mrs. Miller and Hugh Millais’ literate company assassin — both British, not coincidentally — what the characters say is all noise. And the fact that all they can say is noise is what makes them tragic.

RELATED: New on Netflix: "Boyhood," "Burn After Reading" and "Paddington"

Amazingly there’s a plot buried in here, too. Beatty’s John McCabe — a gambler riding high on a (probably bull) story about him killing a man — saunters into a never-was town in the Pacific Northwest and opens a brothel. It’s a rousing success — at least after this stubborn yet insecure loner agrees to a partner-in-crime: Christie's prostitute-turned-madam Mrs. Miller, who points out all the holes in a plan that has, till then, been little more than big talk. (Insert exhausted connection to current leader-elect here.)

Even when this independently-owned goldmine attracts corporate goons, Altman’s in no rush to stir up tension. Like his characters, he’d rather build a sturdy foundation then live like a pig in s— off the riches. And so rather than plow through plot, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” prefers to move in circles — in small, dim rooms and overcast nature. It’s probably confusing to audiences coming for a story, and maybe it was to the actors, too. Altman's "M*A*S*H" came only a year before, and his experimental approach was still relatively new. Beatty looks particularly lost, although that works great: He’s a camera subject at his best when looking slackjawed and befuddled (yet handsome, even with a scruffy beast of a beard that sometimes seems to devour his whole head). Whatever happened, it translated into a touching performance, giving us a man who wants to put on airs but is thwarted at nearly every turn. (Christie, likewise, has never been more electric; the two weren’t just off-screen lovers but a fine, amusing screen duo.) 

It takes the belated arrival of actual violence to ruin everything. Even then the film, like its heroes, puts up a good fight. For the climactic showdown, Altman stages not a quick-draw duel but a slow, quiet cat-and-mouse trawl through ever-deepening snow, the images as blinded by white as the soundtrack teems with wind. Call “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” revolutionary, call it a rebellion against the mainstream. But it’s best when you don’t try to say anything about it at all. Late in, McCabe drunkenly swears he's got poetry lurking under his muttering exterior. The film is poetry, too, and to put words on what happens in its final minute only means you'll ruin it. 

"McCabe & Mrs. Miller" plays through Dec. 6 at Film Forum in New York City. For ticket and showtimes, visit the site.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge