With Friends Like These: Altman’s 3 WOMEN

Altman may have prestige, but this is a horror film played in a minor key.

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Obsession thrills have been having a moment in cinema lately. This year alone, Greta has Isabelle Huppert acting as an unorthodox would-be foster mom while The Perfection, well...The Perfection has a lot going on. This week brings the opening of Ma, in which Octavia Spencer really does not want to drink alone. It's an understandable trend in an era when social media connects us all but we're still oddly estranged from each other. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to forge friendships probably have varying degrees of intimacy. Ever been so tight with someone that you share mannerisms? Cigarettes? How about bedfellows? Probably not intentionally, and that certainly wasn't what Mildred "Millie" Lammoreaux had in mind when she befriended Pinky Rose in Robert Altman's 1977 arthouse drama, 3 Women. Cadence-wise, Altman's psychodrama marches as a cult horror film might, operating on both a lack of clarity and on incrementally unnerving trespasses.

Set in a desolate Californian desert town, the film centers on Millie (Shelley Duvall) and Pinky (Sissy Spacek) working at a senior health spa, with the third woman Willie (Janice Rule) entering the story later on. As the tagline explains, "1 woman became 2/2 women became 3/3 women became 1." That's honestly how it goes.

The story starts with Millie aiding the elderly through water exercises, with Pinky watching through a nearby office window. From her first moment onscreen, Pinky reveres the lanky brunette. Millie is assigned to train Pinky on the job, and they become light acquaintances. Shortly after that, Millie walks behind two other co-workers, having a full conversation with neither of them. While nothing she says really requires a response, the other young women don't acknowledge her presence at all. In fact, any time Millie starts a conversation, those nearby simply circumvent her; they occasionally sneak snickers and glances at each other in reaction to her presence, so this isn't a "she was someone else's subconscious the whole time" situation. Despite her vast knowledge of McCall's recipes and meticulously color-coded outfits, Millie is friendless. That vulnerability, in a straight horror joint, would make her the perfect candidate for cult recruitment. Luckily (unluckily?) she gets Sissy Spacek instead.

Loneliness and a loss of self embroiders itself into the larger thematic tapestry of the movie. Visual fetishes of twins and mirrors suggest reflections of each woman in the others. Depth of field does a lot of the heavy lifting; rather than going the split diopter route, Altman chooses to position the actresses within the frames of carefully angled windows and looking glasses, allowing multiple women to occupy the same screen space while remaining at odds with each other. It all serves to make the most benign tone take on an ominous bent, also a common trapping of cult horror and frenemy thrillers like Single White Female and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle.

Pinky's desire to belong is evident early on: she trails behind twin co-workers as they leave the aquatic center, even changing her cadence to step in line. Despite being broke, she eats at the more expensive hospital cafeteria across the street from where she works, just to get a chance to eat with Millie. It's at that lunch where Millie posts an ad for a new roommate. Pinky gleefully answers, and it's off to the races after that.

From this point on, Pinky racks up cringe-worthy social overreach like so many of us do, except it's intensely focused on one person. The first strange event is a relatively benign one. At the end of orientation day, Pinky thanks Millie with an intimate hug, something far more familiar than what Millie expected. She recovers quickly and adjusts her hair. Pinky is just the hugging type, is all. These are the things we tell ourselves when confronted with strangers acting as if they know us like that. Soon enough, yellow flags turn to red flags: borrowed clothes and longing stares turn into stolen diaries and forged social security numbers. Millie shrugs it off as just an eccentric personality, like Rosemary Woodhouse would shrug off a tannis root necklace. Pinky is, on the surface, just goofy. She squeals at the sight of a teepee, chugs a full beer, and lets out a symphony of burps, all to the embarrassment of Millie. Despite the weird vibes Millie gets (and she does sense this: tight reaction shots of Shelly Duvall confirm her unease throughout the 124 minute runtime), her diary entry just calls Pinky "strange." Tolerance of Pinky's slowly intensifying behavior is easily justified: Millie is just glad to have someone around. How much will we allow when reaching out to touch someone, anyone, just to have them touch back?

That's not to say that Millie's a doormat. She asserts herself as any roomie would, insisting that she be asked for permission before Pinky borrows her clothes, chiding her for leaving messes around the apartment. At one point, she snaps at Pinky out of guilt for messing around with a married man. "What do you know about anything? You don't do any of the things you're supposed to do. Well, I tell you what. If you don't like the way I do things around here, why don't you just move out!" This tension accelerant turns the relationship into a full-on grease fire. Pinky jumps from a railing into the pool, hitting her head and falling into a coma. Millie is overcome with guilt afterward and waits hand and foot on her recovering roommate. What crawls in the film's beginning becomes a gallop; Pinky has changed. This third act turn has all of its escalation packed into half an hour. The takeover comes fast and furious: Pinky starts cavorting with the same people that Millie has unsuccessfully tried to befriend. She's taken up smoking. She writes in her diary of wanting to trace her parents, but refers to Millie's surname to do so. She dresses like her roommate. Things have gone from strange to alarming. Willie, the third of the titular Women, enters in from the periphery of the plot and brings the pressure to a head, culminating in a near-fugue state climax of blood and hysteria.

By the time the credits roll, all three women have dissociated from themselves in order to collectively form a more complete femme archetype. While Altman's ending is a fitting conclusion for Pinky, Millie, and Willie, the triple fusion of three into one wasn't inevitable. Pinky's encroachments were incremental, and Millie's tolerance of each one runs parallel to the slowly boiling frog fable. Ain't that the way of it? When you're tweeting "New year, new me" and wading into a fresh identity (or settling into one that you knew was always under the surface), the transformation isn't a Wolf Man-esque seismic shift. You wade into the waters; first a toe, then the foot, other toe, other foot, and so forth until you're fully submerged into your new persona. Or someone else's.