Sometime during the beginning of the 20th century, a man of unknown origins rides horseback through in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest until he comes to the town of Presbyterian Church. He finds the nearest saloon, and starts a game of poker with the locals. His name is John McCabe, and although he doesn’t seem to be exceptional at poker, he quickly stands out among the population as a leader and man of intelligence, which isn’t saying much due to the lack of education amongst the miners. It also doesn’t hurt that the saloon owner starts rumors that McCabe is a fierce gunslinger.
McCabe settles in the town, and starts a brothel to earn money. Although the bordello does decent business, it’s unclean and poorly run. Enter Mrs. Miller – a madam from the old country that knows how to manage a household of whores. She convinces McCabe to let her class up the place to make more money, which he agrees to. In time, a little romance develops between the two.
The success of the town draws interest from American corporations looking to expand their pocket books. Two agents, from one of the nation’s big mining companies, try to buy out McCabe. Being a gambler, he holds out for a higher price, but the company only negotiates for so long. If they don’t get their way, they resort to force. Mrs. Miller warns McCabe about their violent ways, but he ignores her.
Eventually, his negotiating backfires, and three killers-for-hire are sent out to dispose of him. After talking to them, it’s clear McCabe is afraid of the men. Butler, the head assassin, realizes this, and proclaims that McCabe has never killed a man.
The final scene is nontraditional for a western. Instead of standing toe to toe at high noon in the middle of a dusty street, most of the violence here occurs in the shadows of the town’s buildings, and is set against the senseless killing of the town preacher, whom everyone ignores throughout the film, and the fire that burns his church, which the town rallies to save even though they are never shown to care about the structure throughout the whole movie. The movie ends with McCabe and the three assassins dead, and Mrs. Miller, alone, drowning her sorrows in an opium den.