A dreamlike tale of two Mildreds, subsumed by one another’s identity while their life is delineated in violent murals created by Janice their pregnant landlord, each slowly drowning in liquid nightmare. Director/Writer Robert Altman again shuns typical narrative form and creates an atmosphere of emotional complexity between Millie and the naïve waif Pinky by focusing upon their idiosyncrasies, as they become quickly dependant upon one another.
Pinky immediately attaches herself to the talkatively social pariah Millie, an awkwardly lonely girl who hides her quiet desperation behind meaningless conversations and consuming need for attention. Shelly Duval is sadly beautiful as Millie, her gauche relationships creating an uncomfortable and genuinely depressed environment where we laugh while cringing in embarrassment at her nonplussed attitude: she is seemingly oblivious to the chatter and rude insults but deep down, the loneliness is like a torrent of pain. Sissy Spacek as Pinky (a nickname: her real name is also Mildred) appears as a tiny girl not yet a women, a child who fixates upon Millie and begins to mimic her every move. They eventually become roommates and soon a tragedy leaves Pinky in a coma, and when she wakes she has become her alter ego Millie…though more socially adept.
Altman foreshadows Pinky’s intentions and we are must decode these subtle clues and decide if she is truly suffering trauma or acting out a well formed plan of deception. Edgar Hart is the common tile in this confused mosaic, Janice’s husband who is cheating on her with both Mildreds. He vows never to get involved with a woman who shoots better than he does…but falls victim to his own vices and discards his cautionary moralizing.
3 WOMEN is about identity and it becomes a psychological study of its protagonists, where Altman’s camera is once again a detached observer probing every scene with slow pans and utilizing minimal edits. Gerald Busby’s score evokes a haunting theme of ghostly premonition, like a spirit who waits just beneath the surface of perception to claim the next victim: though coming 3 years before THE SHINING, this evokes the same feeling of dread like Wendy Carlos’ fantastic soundtrack.
The dénouement of stillbirth is allegorical, the three women stuck in the scorching desert of Dissociative Fugues while alluding to the murder of the cheating husband. Altman’s final shot remains intentionally vague like a scintillating image, where the midden of discarded tires is reminiscent of a static life, a broken vehicle unable to travel beyond a perilous boundary.
Final Grade: (B+)