In The New York Times Magazine, Aljean Harmetz wrote of Robert Altman's films: "He wants to catch the accidents of life and fling them on the screen hard enough to knock the breath out of the audience. He wants to weigh the screen down with vulgarity, pleasure, pain, ugliness, and unexpected beauty." McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a fitting example of those intentions fulfilled. It is a film about the gutsy, primitive, violent beginnings of America the wild. It is about the pioneer spirit of capitalism and the powerful pact men made with their property. It is about the raw and vital role of sex in the lives of hard-working pioneers. In Presbyterian Church, a frontier mining town, McCabe (Warren Beatty) commandeers a large portion of the town's property, and Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) runs the whorehouse and satisfies the ache and the agony of the town's menfolk.
Warren Beatty, with bowler and glowing cigar, plays the role of a poseur who through sheer drive and luck impresses the zinc miners with his charisma. The only one to see through the big-man façade to his blundering inabilities is Mrs. Miller, a hardened hooker who can only cope with the craziness of her wandering life with opium. Thus, the gambler and the hooker set up a thriving business partnership in Presbyterian Church
When three hired assassins stalk McCabe for refusing to sell his share of the town to a large company, the townsfolk leave McCabe high and dry. Ironically, they are frantically attempting to extinguish a fire at the church while McCabe is being chased through the snowy streets of the community. The closing scenes of the film are a commentary on the American way that balances prostitution and gambling on one side of the ledger and austere Puritanism and righteousness on the other.
The look and feel of McCabe and Mrs. Miller is reminiscent of Antonionni's use of color in Red Desert and the faded color of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Through the use of fog filters and blue or yellow tints, Altman effectively suggests the long-ago-setting of the film. The atmospheric sense of the film is authentic. One can feel the mustiness of wooden cabins in winter or the humid and sloppy wetness of cold weather in the North.
Likewise, the soundtrack of Leonard Cohen's songs adds effective resonance to the theme of frontier life. Cohen wistfully sings of McCabe: "Like any dealer he was watching for the card / that is so high and wild he'll never need to deal another / He was just some Joseph looking for a manger." With the arrival of the prostitutes, Cohen pines "Sisters of Mercy": "You who must leave everything that you cannot control / it begins with your family but soon it comes round to your soul."
Thus, both atmospheric authenticity and soundtrack metaphorically broaden the varied themes of the film. In the last analysis McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a Whitmanesque tribute to some American frontier archetypes. Abounding with vitality, bawdy humor, pain, and fine characterizations, McCabe and Mrs. Miller evokes the American spirit and depicts a unique and remarkable vision of our country.