One of Robert Altman’s best — and most atypical — films, 3 Women is one of the best examples of a dreamlike aesthetic achieved on celluloid. And like many dreams, this one elicits a wide panoply of emotions, all at the same time. Like the bizarre half-human, half-reptilian murals that Janice Rule’s character paints in the film, 3 Women is unsettling but also mesmerizing. It’s a pleasantly hazy and bewitching dream and a skin-crawlingly weird nightmare at the same time.
Altman regular Shelley Duvall stars as Millie Lammoreaux, an attendant at a day spa for the elderly in the middle of the California desert. Millie fancies herself a highly desirable modern woman, with the fashion sense and recipe book to back it up. Too bad her perspective isn’t shared by any of her coworkers or peers, who can barely muster the disdain to make fun of her.
But there is one person absolutely enthralled with Millie — Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek), a wide-eyed girl just off the bus from Texas — who loves Millie’s personality so much, she might just take it for her own. She gets a job at Millie’s spa and soon becomes her new roommate. Millie takes it upon herself to educate Pinky in the ways of the world and introduces her to her social circle, including Willie and Edgar Hart (Rule and Robert Fortier), a couple who own Millie’s apartment building and a dilapidated amusement center named Dodge City.
The power hierarchy is clearly established initially, and one gets the sense that Millie is grateful to finally have someone in her life she’s socially superior to, but a dramatic mid-film decision by Pinky starts to turn the world upside down. What seemed like plainly defined relational roles are soon anything but, and it isn’t long before the third woman of the title — Rule’s Willie — becomes part of the other two’s lives in a horrifying way.
Many of Altman’s films have an affably shaggy sensibility, but 3 Women is a much more controlled work with a carefully sustained aesthetic. One never is quite at ease during the film, unsure of what Altman’s trademark roving camera will spy next.
Both Duvall and Spacek are brilliant. In her sixth straight Altman film, Duvall possesses an immense awareness of her character’s personality (she crafted much of it on her own) while maintaining Millie’s central obliviousness. She was one of Altman’s finest players, and it’s a shame her career has essentially fizzled post-1980. Here, Spacek is even creepier than she was in Carrie a year earlier, with a harmless-seeming veneer of naïveté that gives way to a seditious, seductive underbelly.