Character studies don't come any better than this offbeat look at small-town self-delusion. Robert Altman, best known for sweeping epics like Nashville, shows us that even on a smaller physical scale he is an original, highly inventive director. The low-budget production uses 16-millimeter photography and a single set to create a desolate, lonely atmosphere that mirrors the characters' hidden emotional turmoil. Although we only glimpse a tiny portion through the store window, we get a perfect feel for the dusty isolation of dying McCarthy, Texas. Five and Dime also contains hidden elements of symbolism that you may not notice at first but add another layer to the brilliance of the film.
Still, as with any play, it's all about the acting. And here, the acting is impeccable, especially that of top-billed stars Sandy Dennis, Cher, and Karen Black. Dennis is Mona, the stubbornly (and dangerously) romantic leader of the Disciples; Cher is Sissy, the blowsy sex symbol with a painful secret; and Black is Joanne, a mysterious "stranger" who cracks everyone's delusions. All three are terrific and should have received more recognition for their roles herein. Great support is provided by the Marta Heflin, the delightful Kathy Bates, and Sudie Bond as the shrill, bigoted owner of the Woolworth's.
This is not a film for everyone. There is no action, by the traditional definition. But this examination fantasy and reality, how life is and how we would like it to be, is a haunting exercise in acting, direction, and emotional involvement.