Monday, February 20, 2012

The Coen Brothers Take Us To Miller’s Crossing, A Mildly Nostalgic Trip

The Good: Excellent acting, Interesting characters, Cinematography, decent DVD extras
The Bad: Convoluted plot that does not go very far, Slow and drawn out
The Basics: When Tom, a counselor to a lead gangster, finds himself on the outs with his employer, his bookie and his woman, the viewer is treated to a beautiful looking film.

Lately, I've been seeing some works I've been looking forward to for quite some time. Perhaps the most anticipated work that I've finally sat down to is Miller’s Crossing. This 1990 cinematic outing by the Coen Brothers (possibly best known still for Fargo) was largely neglected by the major awards and seems to have become something of a cult classic. I remember seeing a real compelling preview for it years ago (not the trailer that is on the DVD, which is one of those terrible trailers which virtually shows the entire movie) and I'd been looking forward to seeing it ever since.

Tom Reagan, Prohibition-era gangster advisor, finds himself in a world of trouble when the boss he counsels, Leo, offends a rising gangster named Johnny Caspar simply by not taking his desire to kill a bookie seriously. Caspar fixes fights and places bets with Bernie Bernbaum, who then sells the information on who Caspar is betting on to others, who flood money into the pool and effectively alter the odds so there will be no payout. Caspar wants to kill Bernie, who is under Leo's protection and Leo blows him off.

Sadly, Leo neglects Tom's counsel in large part because he is in love with Bernie's sister, Verna. Tom is involved with Verna as well and this sets off a string of problems for Tom that are compounded by his gambing debts. Rejected by Leo, he finds himself approaching Caspar, evading Bernie, and in a weird relationship with Verna. When Caspar's lieutenant, the Dane, suspects Tom might be double-crossing Caspar, Tom must figure out how to save his own life, which involves setting all his enemies against each other.

Miller’s Crossing is a beautifully shot film that reminds the viewer of just how important cinematography can be to establishing mood and setting. One of the few DVD bonuses on this disc is a conversation with Barry Sonnenfeld, who discusses his shooting philosophies and ideas for how Miller’s Crossing was framed and created. It's worthwhile, educational and highlights how much thought went into the look and feel of this gangster film.

And the result is a beautiful-looking film. Miller’s Crossing is inarguably a wonderful looking movie. Few films leap right to mind as being assembled so well that what the film looks like tells so much of the story. Indeed, I would be tempted to spend an evening simply watching the film without sound just to soak in the color contrasts, the murky forest that stands starkly against the sharp, beautifully appointed - almost opulent - rooms of Leo's various palaces. Directors Joel and Ethan Coen and Director of Photography Sonnenfeld have a wonderful sense of style that is virtually lost in films outside the art house's now.

Sadly, while the look of the film is wonderful, the feel is anything but. Almost homogeneously slow with characters belaboring the complexities of the plot which is universally based on the concept of which character is betraying the others based on their relationships. So, for example, the Dane has a prominent place in the movie as Caspar's lieutenant, who is having a homosexual relationship with Mink, who is involved with both the Dane and Bernie. Tom manipulates the Dane's love of Mink with Caspar to sew seeds of distrust between the boss and his closest advisor. The webs that are woven between the various characters are all similarly complex and much of the time on screen for the characters is simply spent defining who is relating to who or how someone is tugging at a character based on those relationships.

Miller’s Crossing is a big film about relationships. The problem with it is that almost all of the dialogue belabors that, it is spent defining and explaining the relationships rather than illustrating most of the relationships. So, there is a vast amount of time of the movie spent with characters talking about other characters and musing on how they related. The result is a movie that feels like watching a house of cards being assembled where the person building the structure is belaboring what card is being placed now and what cards it is atop and proximate to.

Fortunately, it looks so good. But also, the characters are interesting. Despite a plot that is dependent on all sorts of character exposition in order to be even remotely sensible, Miller’s Crossing is populated by interesting characters. In one of the other extras, clips of television interviews (sadly, there is no commentary on this version), Marcia Gay Harden - who plays Verna - speaks about her joy at playing a very different female character. She is in a period piece, but playing a strong female character who is not the hooker-with-a-heart of gold, but rather a very independent, strong woman who is running her own game.

And Tom Reagan makes for a wonderful protagonist. Tom is an anti-hero, a gangster who is in deep debt from gambling who will not allow his boss to simply make good on his debts for him, despite the peril it puts him in. Indeed, Tom's big problem is his integrity on some level; he gives Leo good advice, which Leo simply ignores, and he is honest with Leo about his relationship with Verna, which puts him on the outs with his boss and plunges his life into real peril.

The peripherals and supporting characters are all easy to watch and enjoy. Indeed, Mink appears on screen only once and is stunningly memorable for his brief appearance. Bernie Bernbaum is deliciously manipulative and at moments utterly pitiable. Leo and Caspar both have the bearings of genuine leaders and the Dane is a surprisingly strong supporting player on a very full tapestry.

The joy of Miller’s Crossing has to be the acting. All of the performers in this film bring their "a game" to the movie. Gabriel Byrne is Tom and he plays the role unlike anything I've ever seen him in, though he does have a coldness to him that he played in subsequent roles. J.E. Freeman is brilliantly pokerfaced as Eddie Dane. Indeed, one of the coolest moments of the entire cinematic experience involved the Dane's using Verna as a human shield while taking out two bodyguards. Freeman uses his body fluidly and brilliantly in such a way that seems effortless and stylistically wonderful, yet utterly real and a part of the world created for this movie.

Marcia Gay Harden, who I loved in The Spitfire Grill (reviewed here!), once again illustrates her complete range of talent by providing a performance that is strong and opposite almost every other film I've seen her in. Here she is a major player and she holds her own in a very manly movie. She and Byrne have great on-screen chemistry which sells their relationship perfectly.

The one to watch, though, is Jon Polito. I was familiar with Polito before this film solely from an episode of Millennium called "Omerta" from its third season (reviewed here!), where he played a quirky reformed gangster. The role was wonderful and weird and when Polito opened Miller’s Crossing, he was instantly recognized by me. Usually, I judge an actor and their performance on how different it is from their established cannon of works. Polito wonderfully and expertly plays essentially the same character I had seen before in Millennium in a very different context. He manages to balance humor and efficiency wonderfully and despite the similarities in characters and performances, Polito steals every scene he is in.

It's just enough to recommend this film. As someone who has watched hundreds of movies in the last year, it's hard to find something I still find new and intriguing and I suspect if I had less experience with films, I would have enjoyed Miller’s Crossing a lot more. It's an enjoyable film, but it belabors itself because it is complicated, but not long, though it feels long in parts. It is beautifully shot, with a wonderful score and interesting characters. The performances are great, but most of the work was done in the casting; this movie has a truly great ensemble and is likely to delight those who are tired of giant a-list heavy films. This is a rather manly film, but it is not brainless guy fare and may be accessible to women who like a good gangster film that is a bit quirkier than the average drama.

But it's not for the faint of heart; this is a bloody movie obsessed with relationships and how messy they can be. I'm glad I watched it, finally, even if I did find myself wishing for more.

For other movies with gangsters, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Godfather
The Whole Ten Yards
The Untouchables


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
| | |

No comments:

Post a Comment