Thursday, April 3, 2014

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

Miller's Crossing  (1990) 
Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Written by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.
Starring: Gabriel Byrne (Tom Reagan), Marcia Gay Harden (Verna), John Turturro (Bernie Bernbaum), Jon Polito (Johnny Caspar), J.E. Freeman (Eddie Dane), Albert Finney (Leo), Mike Starr (Frankie), Al Mancini (Tic-Tac), Richard Woods (Mayor Dale Levander), Thomas Toner (O'Doole), Steve Buscemi (Mink), Mario Todisco (Clarence "Drop" Johnson), Frances McDormand (Mayor's Secretary).

Watching Miller’s Crossing again, I was struck by its ruthless narrative efficiency, the precision of its production designs, costume and cinematography and the coldness of its characters. When critics of the Coen brothers talk about how they lack heart – that their films are style over substance – they may well be thinking of Miller’s Crossing. I wasn’t really bothered by the coldness of the movie – it is appropriate given that at a key moment in the film, when the main character is asked to look into his heart, he replies “What heart?” and by that time in the movie you are convinced that he has ceased to care about anyone but himself. Almost all of the characters in Miller’s Crossing are similar – looking out only for their own self-interest, willing to do just about anything to get and stay ahead. Perhaps that’s why Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Regan mainly gets to exit the movie unscathed, instead of thoroughly punished for his sins like many Coen protagonists – Tom is a sinner to be sure, but unlike everyone else in the movie he does at least have some moral code – and sticks to it to the end.

Like many Coen movies, Miller’s Crossing is homage to a classic Hollywood genre – this time the gangster genre of the 1930s – notably inspired by the work of Dashiell Hammet. Tom Regan is an adviser to crime boss Leo (Albert Finney) in prohibition era Chicago – his trusty, right hand man who can always be counted on to give it to Leo straight. Leo is about to make a big mistake – Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), an Italian mobster who isn’t quite as powerful as Leo, but could give him a run for his money if he wanted to, is angry at Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) – a bookie that Leo is protecting. Bernie is screwing over Johnny – and others – to make money for himself by letting everyone know how Johnny is betting when a fight is rigged – screwing up Johnny’s odds. Normally, Leo would put a stop to this. However, he’s currently sleeping with Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) – Bernie’s sister – and has convinced himself he’s in love with her. Giving Johnny permission to whack Bernie wouldn’t go over well with Verna. Tom advises Leo to dump Verna – he knows she is untrustworthy mainly because he’s also sleeping with her behind Leo’s back. What follows is a series of violent murders, double and triple crosses with bodies showing up at both inopportune and completely opportune times and where Tom seems to be playing both sides of the street – or perhaps neither.

What’s amazing to me about Miller’s Crossing is how complex the plot of the movie is – it’s almost like Chandler’s The Big Sleep, with murders that are seemingly solved, until another one happens which throws everything into a different light – and yet how efficient the plotting of the movie is. There are a lot of characters – a lot of double crosses – and some characters like Mink (Steve Buscemi) appear only in one scene, yet have huge portions of the plot depend on them. Yet as complex as things get, I was never really confused in Miller’s Crossing. Like Blood Simple, this is a movie where sometimes characters make the wrong decisions, but in the moment they make them, you understand precisely why they make the decisions that they do.

The tone of the movie is set by Gabriel Byrne’s lead performance as Tom. Although he spends the entire movie with one group or another wanting to kill him, he remains even keeled in every scene. He remains logical, thinking through every step of his plan, through to the end. For the most part, he is ruthless – his one act of compassion is perhaps his biggest mistake in the film – the one that causes him the most problems, and the one he eventually corrects, even though by then there isn’t much of an angle in it for himself anymore. But it’s the principle of the thing. He is matched in his performance by Marcia Gay Harden as Verna – who is just as cold and calculating – and just as ruthless – as Tom is. She uses whoever she needs to – and uses every weapon she has at her disposal to do so. The best performance in the movie is by John Turturro as Bernie, who is a little smarter than he seems, but not as smart as he thinks he is. He is the first Jewish character in a Coen movie, and when some describe them as “self-hating Jews”, they could be thinking of a character like Bernie – who in a movie full of criminals is worse than the rest. These three are pretty much in competition with each other to see who can better manipulate the events that Leo and Caspar – two people who unlike Tom, Verna and Bernie are rules by their emotions – yet think they are in control of them.

The film is impeccably made – from the great production design and costumes, to the use of darkness and shadows by cinematographer Barry Sonnefeld (in his last collaboration with the Coens before embarking on his directorial career) which gives the film an appropriate, stylized period look. The film could have work well in black and white as well, but I think this time the use of dark color tones is appropriate. Miller’s Crossing remains one of the best looking films in the Coen’s filmography.

Miller’s Crossing is a cold film though – one that doesn’t really have time for the characters humanity, mainly because it doesn’t seem to think they have any. Tom Regan is perhaps alone among the dramatic leads in a Coen movie in that he sins, but pretty much gets to walk away clean at the end of the movie. Sure, he gets beaten up nearly constantly throughout the film, and in the end walks away from everything and everyone he knows. But given what happens to the rest of the characters – most of whom are dead, with the exception of Leo and Verna, who are about to embark on what will certainly be a loveless marriage to each other because he’s too dumb to realize that she despises him, and she has no other cards left to play, it’s practically a happy ending for Tom by comparison. Or at least as happy as he’s likely to get in Coen movie.

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