3 Women Movie Review
Welcome to Robert Altman's personal nightmare (literally, he came up with the story in a dream), a tale of identity and personality, and the cascading way that cliques work, even in the smallest of groups.
The film opens as we're introduced to Pinky (Sissy Spacek), a new arrival in a California desert town, where she is on her first day on the job at an old-folks spa. Here she quickly befriends Millie (Shelley Duvall), who strikes awe in Pinky due to her ostensible worldliness and sophisticated ways. We see through Millie immediately, of course. She's a blatant wannabe who mimics others and copies ideas (and awful recipes) out of fashion magazines. Everyone else in the movie sees through her too: She's ignored even when she speaks directly to people, her party guests never arrive, and her plans for "hot dates" invariably end up with her going to the local dive bar -- which offers dirt bike racing and a gun range out back.
While Millie is initially pleased to have a sycophant who copies her every move (and moves into her apartment), even this wears thin. It isn't long before Spacek's juvenile wallflower starts to embarrass even Millie, whether she dumps red sauce all over her house dress or pours salt into a mug of beer to watch it foam up before downing it. After a night when everything goes wrong, Millie gets sick of the childishness, and goads her into moving out. Pinky immediately leaps from the balcony and ends up in a coma.
At this midpoint in the film, everything goes haywire. Wracked with guilt, Millie cares for Pinky at the hospital, tracking down her parents and caring for her daily needs. When she finally comes to, Pinky can't remember much -- including her folks or, it seems, her old personality. Suddenly, Pinky is a domineering "modern gal," while Millie now plays the rube.
The end result is a film far more reminiscent of Polanski than Altman and stands as one of his most underseen but most compelling works. Altman plops us into this crazy dream and doesn't let up. It's at once hyper-realistic and eerily out there, dragging you through "this can't be happening" moments that nonetheless come across with an uncanny sense of realism. Spacek and Duvall are both deliciously uncomfortable to watch, and together they make Altman's case in full: The cascading effect of the way cliques and popularity work has never been done with more depth or with sharper teeth.
The only real flaw with the film is an unfortunate oboe score that is ear-mangling in its cacophony. It not only dates the production to the '70s, in its loudest moments it gets positively grating. There's plenty of that going on without turning the music loose on us.
Now on Criterion DVD, the film benefits from an Altman commentary track. Highly recommended.
Aka Three Women.