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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Joel and Ethan Coens’ ‘Miller’s Crossing’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Joel and Ethan Coens' 'Miller's Crossing'

now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for
attention. This is the 
Criticwire Classic of the

“Miller’s Crossing”
Dir: Joel Coen (uncredited: Ethan Coen)
Criticwire Average: A+

This week sees the release of David Zellner’s “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” about a woman whose obsession with the film “Fargo” pushes her to search for the buried loot from the film (never mind that it is not, actually, a true story). “Fargo” was the Coen Brothers’ breakthrough film, earning several Oscar nominations and a few wins, but it was their sixth film overall and their fourth in a long run of great movies in the 90s. The first from that run, 1990’s “Miller’s Crossing,” is a little less immediately inviting, but no less great. (Among the signs it’s finally getting its due: A recent reference on the ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat” to the movie and the “no-good cinephiles” who love it.)

The labyrinthine plot involves Gabriel Byrne as Tom Reagan, the right-hand man to mob boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney), who gets caught in the middle of a gang war between O’Bannon and Italian crook Johnny Casper (Jon Polito) after the latter demands the head of crooked bookie Bernie Baunbaum (John Turturro), the brother of Leo’s mistress Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) who, as it turns out, has been seeing Tom on the side. Things get more complicated from there, but the Coens handle it all with a deft hand, letting the audience learn things as Tom learns them (not unlike many of the hardboiled novels that inspired the film). And while the heightened language requires viewers listen closely to figure out exactly what’s being said, it has such a musicality to it that it never seems like a chore.

“Miller’s Crossing” would rank as one of the Coens’ most perfectly-constructed films, from the complex ins-and-outs of the plot to the controlled, restrained style that recalls both classicist masterworks like “The Godfather” and “The Conformist” and noirs like “The Big Sleep” and “The Maltese Falcon.” The set-pieces, including a hit on Leo’s house where creaking floorboards let the mobster know to grab the machine gun, are exquisite, but just as impressive are the film’s deliberate reveals of who’s in the room waiting for Tom whenever he gets home. They even get some of their signature wiseacre sense of humor in the action sequences: when one of Johnny Casper’s goons moves in on Tom, our anti-hero grabs a chair and smacks him over the head. Cut to the hurt and irritated goon: “Jesus, Tom.”

The film is filled with colorful characters, from Turturro as the weasely Bernie to Jon Polito’s hilariously blustery antagonist (“I’m talkin’ about eh-ticks”). But it’s Byrne’s moody, subdued performance that provides the film’s melancholy heart. For all of the times others assert Tom’s heartlessness, he acts as much out of love for someone as anyone else in the film, in this case a love for his boss and best friend. He’s a miserable drunk who cracks wise about everything around him, but he’s the only one self-aware enough to realize the essential cruelty of the world around him, and the one willing to do terrible things, be they heartbreak or murder, in order to set things right. For a film filled with characters debating ethics, he’s likely the most principled one of the bunch, but that’s what makes him an essentially lonely character. Honesty may be the best policy, but it doesn’t make you many friends. “Nobody knows anybody. Not that well.”

More thoughts from the web:

Geoff Andrew, Time Out

Like “Blood Simple” and “Raising Arizona,” this works both as a crime thriller and as an ironic commentary on that genre. With fast, sharp, witty dialogue and Byzantine plotting, it charts the gang war between Leo (Finney) and Caspar (Polito) in an American city during Prohibition. Tom (Byrne), Leo’s loyal right-hand man, is the lover of Leo’s mistress (Harden), whose brother (Turturro) Caspar wants killed. Exactly how this and other complications are sorted out forms the hugely inventive, enjoyable narrative core of the film. But it is also a tribute to the crime literature (notably Hammett) and movies of the ’30s, artfully poised between ‘realism’ and a subtle acknowledgment of its own artifice. And there’s yet another level, since it is composed – visually, verbally and structurally – as a series of variations on the themes of ‘Friendship, character, ethics’. Read more.

Jason Deans, The Guardian

OK, so he’s an asshole. But he’s an asshole who abides by his own set of rules, no matter what – killing the brother of the woman he loves (yes, I still think love’s in the mix) to “straighten things out” with Albert Finney’s Leo. I guess I should have seen it coming, given that the film is shot through with such a deep, dark cynicism from the opening scene, in which Jon Polito’s psychopathic rival mob boss Johnny Caspar lectures Leo about friendship, character and ethics – “It’s getting so a businessman can’t expect no return from a fixed fight. Now if you can’t trust a fix, what can you trust?” Read more.

John Flaus, Senses of Cinema

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

Working with breathtaking flair, director Joel Coen (his brother, Ethan, produces, and the two collaborate on scripts) has captured and heightened the labyrinthine plot twists, the poetically tough dialogue, the fatalism and stark pop beauty that made movies such as “The Big Sleep” and books like Hammett’s “The Glass Key” such compulsive, whirlpool entertainments. This is easily the Coens’ straightest movie; it’s the one in which they’re trying to prove they have ”heart.” Yet they haven’t eased up on their gamesmanship. “Miller’s Crossing” treats the conventions of Hollywood underworld movies as though they were Tinkertoy parts. The fun of the picture is that, like the previous Coen films, it’s fundamentally a contraption, a narrative gizmo built by whiz-kid control freaks. And so even its heart feels a little calculated. Read more.

Noel Murray, The A.V. Club

Rapid patter and bellowing fat men aside, “Miller’s Crossing” is the most atypical of the Coens’ films. In his DVD interview, cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld sums it up as “a handsome movie about men in hats,” and that high-toned, “Godfather”/”Conformist” feel inspires some of the most naturalistic performances in any Coen film. Gabriel Byrne plays an advisor to Albert Finney, a ’30s mob boss hooked up with two-timing moll Marcia Gay Harden and her shyster bookie brother John Turturro. While rival crew leader Jon Polito tries to sway loyalties, Byrne heartlessly plays the angles and avoids getting his hands too bloody. “Miller’s Crossing” is so tangled that it eventually becomes too much about the untangling, but colorful expressions like “Take your flunky and dangle” are amusing, and the story evolves into an examination of situational ethics that integrates philosophy and action far better than “The Matrix.” Read more.

Christopher Orr, The Atlantic

Of course, plenty of films that abound with clever references nonetheless make for lousy cinema. But “Miller’s Crossing” is an aesthetic pleasure of the highest order on nearly every level. Begin with its almost intolerably sumptuous cinematography, with reds and greens so deep one is in danger of falling into them. This was the last film that Barry Sonnenfeld shot for the Coens—and one for which he persuaded them to use long lenses instead of the wide-angle variety they had favored—and no one involved has mustered a better-looking work since. The production design by Dennis Gassner is comparably extraordinary: the long, long oak rooms with their endless oriental rugs and all the furniture seemingly tucked into one corner. Read more.

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