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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Netflix Recommends... Miller's Crossing (1990)

* * * 1/2

Director: Joel Coen
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, Albert Finney

Third time's the charm, I guess. This time Nextflix's Top 10 recommendations only included 3 films, one of which I'd already seen and enjoyed (The Men Who Stare At Goats), one I'd never heard of (Freedomland), and one that's been on my list of films to see for a while, but which I hadn't gotten to yet (Miller's Crossing). So I chose Miller's Crossing, which I've somehow managed to never see despite being a huge Coen brothers fan, and it proved to be a much more satisfactory choice than my previous Netflix Recommends selections. A lyrical gangster movie/period piece with touches of humor mixed in with darkness, Miller's Crossing is everything you expect from a Coen brothers drama.

Set in an unnamed city during Prohibition, Miller's Crossing follows Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), the right hand man to Leo O'Brien (Albert Finney), the gangster who runs the city. Leo's in a bind as his rival, Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), has come to him as a courtesy to let him know of his intention to kill Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro in a delightfully slippery performance), a local bookie. Leo lets Caspar know in no uncertain terms that Bernie isn't to be touched, refusing Tom's advice to let Caspar have Bernie because Bernie is the brother of Leo's girlfriend, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Tom doesn't think that staying in Verna's good graces is a decent reason for going to war with Caspar, particularly in light of the fact that he knows Verna is seeing someone else - that someone else being Tom himself. When Leo learns of Tom's relationship with Verna, he tosses him out of his organization - a bad move since it leads to Tom going over to Caspar's side.

In order to prove himself to Caspar, Tom is forced to kill Bernie, taking him out to the woods at Miller's Crossing and shooting him twice. Fortunately for Tom, Caspar's goons decide they don't need to actually witness him carrying out the hit, so instead of killing Bernie, Tom tells him to disappear. Unfortunately for Tom, Caspar's right hand man, Eddie Dane (J. E. Freeman), isn't as dumb as the others and insists on going back to Miller's Crossing to see the body. Tom is just as shocked as Eddie when they find an actual body there, placed by Bernie who has decided that, rather than disappearing and being grateful for the opportunity, he's going to blackmail Tom instead. Tom's problems now are plenty: he's being blackmailed by Bernie into killing Caspar, he's trying to keep Dane from proving that Bernie is alive and trying to turn Caspar against Dane, he's trying maintain his relationship with Verna despite the complications presented by Bernie and Leo, and he's caught in the middle of an escalating war between Leo and Caspar. And, to top it all off, he gets beaten up in pretty much every other scene.

Miller's Crossing is a mix of 1930's style gangster movies and 1940's style noir, with a light touch that makes it its own unique thing. Carter Burwell's airy score and the bits of absurdist humor nicely offset the more violent aspects of the story and give the film a fable-like feel. Even some of the film's most intense scenes have a touch of lightness to them, such as a scene in which Leo is ambushed at home and casually dispatches one of his assassins, takes his gun, and drops out the window of his burning home, shooting up the rest of the assassins as if it's just another Tuesday night. Even in the midst of violence, the characters tend to act with a sense of assurance, as if they know that they'll emerge on the other side relatively unscathed. The exception is Bernie, whose confidence crumbles immediately and who resorts to begging a would-be killer to "Look into your heart." That the would-be execution scene is as effective as it is, even with Turturro skirting so close to going over-the-top, is a testament to the Coens' firm control over the proceedings and the tone. They continuously pull things back just enough, make the undercurrent of menace just prominent enough, that everything works together in harmony.

Much of the success of the film is due to the uniformly excellent cast. Byrne delivers a quiet, weary and understated performance that recalls the noir tough guy heroes played by the likes of Bogart and Mitchum, and Harden delivers a sultry, hard-edged performance as the femme fatale. The real MVP for me, though, is Finney as Leo, a character who is absolutely commanding in every respect, except when it comes to Verna. In Finney's hands, Leo is a man not to be toyed with, a man still capable of doing his own dirty work when he has to, but who also has a barely concealed soft center which leaves him as vulnerable and easily manipulated as a lovestruck teenager when it comes to Verna. That this comes across so intensely in the performance is all the more remarkable for the fact that Finney and Harden don't share a scene together until the very end. The relationship is conveyed almost entirely by Leo's behavior around Tom, striking an attitude which is a mixture of defiance and apology because even Leo knows that he's making stupid decisions because of Verna. Leo is a character drawn with fascinating strokes, a character whose fatal flaw lends him an almost Shakespearean quality that makes me wish he factored just a bit more into the actual narrative. Still, Miller's Crossing remains a compelling movie as it follows Tom, a guy who might successfully tie up all the loose ends, but who is bound to never quite end up on top.

1 comment:

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

Wonderful review of an underrated Cohen Bros. film (in fact, it may be my favorite of their works). The scene between Tom and Bernie is as compelling as they come. Gabriel Byrne is excellent--too bad his acting career didn't turn out better.