Monday, June 11, 2012

Miller's Crossing (1990): One of the Coen Brothers' Best Films

Miller's Crossing
I am not a huge fan of Joel and Ethan Coen's work. I find the majority of their films start out really great and intriguing. But what most often happens is at some point after the middle of the movie, they begin to lose momentum and magnificence. It could be they raise the audience's expectations so high that towards the end they are not able to fulfil them. The feeling I usually get after seeing a film of the Coens is of somehow wasted potential. What I like about Miller's Crossing is that it almost does not suffer from the aforementioned problem. It is not perfect but it is a good movie and I would recommend it as one of the better experiences the Coen brothers' have offered until now.

As many other gangster films, Miller's Crossing is set in the Prohibition Era in the beginning of the 20th century. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) tries to keep the peace between his Irish boss Leo (Albert Finney) and another gang of Italian mobsters. Leo insists on protecting Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) after the latter cheats the Italians' boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) cause he is in love with Bernie's sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Tom knows this is wrong and will lead to a lot of trouble for the Irishman but Leo does not listen to him. To make the relationships even more complicated Tom and Verna have an affair too. Reagan has to make some important choices and there are other characters in the mix whose "ethics" is questionable.

Miller's Crossing offers an interesting and rather intricate story. The relationships between the characters are quite complicated as well and most of the time it's hard to understand what is the actual motivation behind their actions (especially in regard to Tom Reagan). The movie features plenty of double-crossing and divided loyalties. There is a lot of outwitting and the exact outcome is not obvious. In a way Miller's Crossing slightly resembles Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (and it is also influenced by Dashiell Hammett's novels The Glass Key and Red Harvest) but Tom Reagan is in pursuit of completely different goals compared to the protagonist in Yojimbo.

The movie is about criminal "ethics" and loyalty. The former is not amongst the virtues of the main character but there are a few ironic (and iconic) speeches about ethics delivered by Johnny Caspar who is skilfully played by Jon Polito. The police in the city is practically bought and controlled by the dominating gang independently which one it is. Episodes of violence and black humour are to be expected (it's the Coen brothers' movie after all). And as usual the presence of symbols is not overlooked either, e.g., look about for a hat.

The acting in Miller's Crossing is very good and the casting has been quite successful. Gabriel Byrne does a wonderful job portraying the smart, restrained, laconic and amoral Tom Reagan. He has his own agenda and we are wondering throughout the whole film whether he has a heart or not. Albert Finney is behind the scene most of the time but when he's in frame, he makes are memorable appearances. John Turturro is really annoying as Bernie and it is not difficult to see why somebody would want him dead. Marcia Gay Harden is decent in her performance of Verna in an otherwise entirely masculine movie.

While the ending of Miller's Crossing could not be to the taste of everyone, I think the film is of an almost steady quality in its whole continuity. The Coens have done a better job than usual and the camera work is at the elevated level one would expect from their movies. The film lacks the grandeur of The Godfather but it is a very solid gangster movie and a good choice if you are an admirer of the crime genre.


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