Simmering with slow-burning intensity, director Robert Altman’s small-scale 3 Women is an exquisitely-drawn psychological character study driven by a pair of career-defining performances.Altman made a career out of movies where nothing is what it seems; where characters are painted in a multitude of shades, and evolve across the piece. Two decades into a career that spanned five, and the master filmmaker was riding high on the critical acclaim of M*A*S*H, but still finding widespread appeal elusive, to which end he established his own studio to produce films the way he wanted to make them.3 Women was borne out of this decision, and indeed reportedly out of a bizarre dream that Altman had which was fashioned into a makeshift script that would, in his typical directorial style, evolve into the more improvisational end result that we now see. Largely disregarded on release – again not uncommon for his films – rights issues left it languishing for almost three decades before being released on home formats.
The story follows a small town Texas girl, Pinky (Sissy Spacek, Badlands) who starts work at a health spa and finds herself drawn to one of the other workers there, the seemingly vacuous, self-involved Millie (Shelley Duvall, The Shining) who thinks the whole world revolves around her despite the fact that it very clearly does not. When tragedy befalls them, however, the tables are turned, and both girls find their worlds veritably turned upside down.
Almost four decades on and Altman's 3 Women is still an acute dissection of one woman's psyche.
3 Women draws wonderful performances out of Spacek and Duvall, which require of them to work hard to not only develop their characters but also be prepared to completely spin themselves out of their respective comfort zones. Indeed it is hard to know quite which one puts in the more impressive performance. Whilst the film is innately slow-burning, this pacing is very much necessary to fully flesh out the characters before Altman pulls the rug out, and the payoff is desperately compelling.
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