Thursday 8 April 2010

Miller's Crossing (1990)

Director: Joel Coen
Stars: Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Jon Polito, J E Freeman and Albert Finney

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Miller's Crossing came as a huge surprise to me. I've been a Coen brothers fan ever since I was knocked out by Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? at least a decade ago and every succeeding film of theirs that I saw merely added to my respect for them. When I caught up with this one in 2004 I hadn't even seen Fargo yet, but it was still clear that this one didn't meet the standards I was used to. Now that I've caught up with almost all of their films, it's still the least of them and that's surprising because it's so consistently highly rated, by people who seem to know what they're talking about. Yet, even after a second time through, I just don't get it. To my mind this is lower on the Coen scale than even their remake of The Ladykillers, which wasn't bad until you watch the original. The rest are generally great.

The Coens are film fans who build their movies out of influences they love and there are consistent techniques and themes that tend to run throughout all of them. They design beautifully tangled plots and write razor sharp scripts around them with powerfully memorable dialogue. They have a talent for inventive cinematography and keep their pace quick, all driven by a dynamic major character and an astute wit. All these common characteristics are tied together by a unique sense of style that varied with each film, depending on where the influences for it originated, but that remained consistently and distinctively Coen Brothers. That holds true from moment one, with Blood Simple and Raising Arizona and it holds consistent throughout their filmography. Except for this one.

In comparison to all those other films, Miller's Crossing hasn't much beyond the tangled plot, which starts out slowly and without much apparent focus but kicks in about halfway through. However the tricks of cinematography are mostly replaced by alternating static shots of people talking; the script doesn't contain much at all in the way of humour; and finally, the dynamic major character, so ably portrayed elsewhere by George Clooney, Paul Newman or John Goodman, is played here by Gabriel Byrne who seems to sleepwalk through the entire movie. That worked for a befuddled role like that of Jeff Goldblum in Into the Night, but it doesn't work in a gangster flick. That sound you hear in place of the usual sparkling Coen Brothers soundtrack is James Cagney and Edward G Robinson turning over in their graves.

Without any of the dominant power that Cagney and Robinson exuded out of every pore, even before they were stars, like in The Doorway to Hell or the first half of Little Caesar, Byrne plays a similar character. He's Tom Reagan, the right hand man of Leo O'Bannon, the gangster who runs whatever unknown city Miller's Crossing is set in. It's never named but they shot it in New Orleans, amid some circumstances that could have come out of the script itself. Leo is important enough to have the mayor and the chief of police in his office, and he's important enough to shout at them to sit down. He's a tough guy, for sure, as you might expect for someone played by Albert Finney, but he's losing ground to a rising power called Johnny Caspar, mostly because he's sticking by a cheap fixer called Bernie Bernbaum who's causing trouble for everyone. He's doing that because of a woman, Verna by name, who's Bernie's sister and Leo's girl.

Caspar calls Reagan 'the man who walks behind the man, who whispers in his ear,' and it's a good description, given that he has telling things to whisper as Verna is Tom's girl too. Leo isn't listening too much nowadays though, and so when Tom finally lets his big secret drop, he's kicked unceremoniously out of Leo's Shenandoah Club and he begins playing both ends against the middle. Obviously he has to be subtle, and Gabriel Byrne was always good at subtle, but he's really subtle here, so much so that we don't even notice. If it's all meant to be set up for him to be the calm within the storm, then great. We can happily watch Jon Polito rage around as Johnny Caspar and John Turturro play the wild card throughout, because they're both great fun to watch, especially as Polito hangs his mouth open a lot like Brian Cox in Manhunter.

But we're presumably supposed to be watching Reagan and, perhaps by design, he doesn't stay remotely consistent enough for us to get a grip on who he's supposed to be. He puts Verna down any time he feels like it but always comes back to her. He puts on tough airs that just don't work: 'Sister, when I've raised hell, you'll know it,' he says like a cut rate Pacino. Yet there are points where he feels tough without trying and in fact without doing much of anything. He's clever enough to persuade both sides that he's with them a hundred percent while playing them all for his own gain, but he isn't clever enough to avoid getting beaten up all the time. Somehow he manages to do all that persuading while hardly ever committing to anything. 'I'll think about it,' he says, pretty much all the time to pretty much everyone.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed Miller's Crossing, I guess, but I'm amazed at its inclusion in the IMDb Top 250 when far worthier films from the same directors or starring the same actors didn't make the list. What really makes this one resonate is that it isn't artificially bumped up by fanboys the way things like X2 or Transformers can make it into the list, it's rated highly by real film fans who really appreciate this movie. They genuinely seem to care about it, raving about it not because it's a Coen film but because it appeals to them as a cinematic textbook. They talk about it like they talk about Citizen Kane, as a masterpiece of technique, to be studied and admired and, a little lower down the list, enjoyed. And, even having worked through it a second time, I just don't understand why.

There are some good scenes, like the one where an inquisitive boy and his inquisitive dog find the corpse of Rug Daniels and steal his wig, or the attack on Leo's house which is overplayed but kept under control by Albert Finney. There are some good settings, as people walk away or look up at the treetops or shoot through walls. There are some good lines, like when Verna points out that Leo is honest and has a heart and Tom replies, 'Then it's true what they say. Opposites attract.' The music by Carter Burwell is memorable and the labyrinthine twists keep us paying attention. Yet from the very beginning the picture seems wooden, with a static camera merely switching back and forth between two people talking to each other. Occasionally this approach works well, as a diversionary tactic or to illustrate distance but mostly it makes the whole film feel empty, while every other Coen brothers film I've seen seems full.

The cast are top notch actors but either don't seem to be trying here or seem weak and ineffective in comparison to what they've done elsewhere. Gabriel Byrne has certainly proved himself in other films, before and since, and that this is his second highest rated movie at IMDb behind only The Usual Suspects is a little insulting to the rest of his career. Albert Finney plays Leo, and while he is always crusty and solid and tough, this part fades in comparison to his stunning performances much earlier in films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Tom Jones or much later in Big Fish. Marcia Gay Harden is capable, early in her career, but unsympathetic and unlikable as Verna, so much so that we can't help but wonder what two massively important figures in this city see in her.

Bernie Bernbaum, who proves to be the main catalyst for most of the plot, is Coen regular John Turturro and he's good here but again not as good as elsewhere. He was superb in Quiz Show and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and my favourite of his many memorable roles thus far may just be the freaky one he gave in the otherwise disappointing Secret Window, perhaps the only time that Johnny Depp has ever been outshone. Steve Buscemi gets a brief but welcome appearance as a fast talking weasel named Mink, but it's only a single scene. J E Freeman is memorable as Caspar's sidekick Eddie Dane, a role intended for Peter Stormare but rewritten when he proved unavailable. Down at the cameo end of the credits are regular Coen names like Sam Raimi as a cop and Frances McDormand as the mayor's secretary.

Above them all Jon Polito shines the brightest because he's the only character who actually seems to be truly alive. He's hardly a pleasant soul but he has a lot of opportunity to show both his good and his bad sides and he does so in a very revealing manner. By the end of the film we know far more about Johnny Caspar than we do about anyone else in the story. Nobody else seems to have a purpose, a meaning or anything close to one, let alone any real depth, and that goes double for Tom Reagan. If I'm reading the film right, which I presumably am not even close to, he proves to be so clever in manipulating everyone in the film that he ends up manipulating himself and losing track of what he's doing and why. He certainly gets the last word but I don't think he even knows what it is. He certainly doesn't get any resolution or gain and it would seem he gets the opposite of both. Is that the point? That it's pointless?

The story was a difficult one for the Coen brothers to write and that's telling. In fact they apparently suffered from writer's block during the process of writing the script, so much so that they broke off to write Barton Fink, not uncoincidentally a film about a writer trying to write a screenplay while suffering from writer's block, before returning to it fresh. It's loosely based on a novel called The Glass Key, with some additional influence from Red Harvest, both books written by Dashiell Hammett, who was well known for his dense plotting and unorthodox takes on resolution. None of this seems remotely surprising, though the other films I've seen that were based on Hammett works have tended to be much more approachable and understandable.

While Tom Reagan orchestrates most of what goes down in this film, just as Sanjuro the bodyguard does in Kurosawa's Yojimbo, an uncredited adaptation of Red Harvest, he doesn't seem to have any discernible purpose at any point in time. Sanjuro was out for his own benefit, but we don't see that with Reagan. Sometimes the paths he finds himself following reminded me of Sam Spade in The Big Sleep in their lack of focus, but this film pales in comparison with that one. Like Reagan, Spade followed events and through his own actions shaped what followed, but Spade was always guided by his convictions, whether he made mistakes or not, and the joy at the conclusion is that we don't actually know whether it was the right one or not. Perhaps it doesn't matter and perhaps the journey is the destination. Here we're not sure what either the journey or destination are and there is no real conclusion.

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