Miller's Crossing

(USA - 1990)

by Vanes Naldi & Mike Lorefice
7/25/05 (Vanes 7/25/01)

Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Jon Polito
Genre: Crime
Director: Joel Coen
Screenplay: Joel & Ethan Coen
Cinematography: Barry Sonnenfeld
Composer: Carter Burwell
Runtime: 115 minutes

Tom: Intimidating helpless women is my job.
Verna: Then go find one, and intimidate her.

VN: When people talk about gangsters movies, they think about The Godfather, Goodfellas and to a lesser degree Sergio Leone's masterpiece "Once Upon a Time in America". While in my opinion the latter two are well over a notch above the film by Coppola, adored by many and still on top of the IMDb top 100, it's interesting to use it for a comparison with what basically consisted in the "coming of age" feature from brothers Ethan and Joel Coen, Miller's Crossing.

Godfather was certainly a quality film, but it didn't measure up with the quality of Scorsese's and Leone's films. For starters, what really made Coppola's film excellent was the acting, the great soundtrack and the fact the film was so suggestive, it recreated a great ambient, a great sense of familiarity. What the film greatly lacked was probably Leone's biggest achievement, using the camera to tell a story. It seemed like Coppola's film used static cinematography that mean much because it wasn't used properly. Certainly, there have been masters of "static" filmmaking, but pretty much all of them are Asians (Ozu, Hung and others though Bresson would be a notable exception) and they were trying to achieve something totally different, a vision that few people in the Hollywood dominated world understood. Coppola's directing of Godfather at its best lead inevitably to a sense of detachment from the characters that was saved by the great acting, and at it's worst looked like a filmed play. I liked Leone's and Scorsese's films much more because the directing was so masterfully crafted, that it enhanced greatly what was on screen, not merely being a media to showcase the story, but an important tool, like a "hidden" performer.

ML: The greatest static filmmakers were Ozu & Bresson. What Ozu and Bresson had in common was eliminating camera movement to eliminate distraction, to eliminate manipulation. Bresson works because he denies the audience all emotion until the very end, when there's a giant orgasmic release, a kind of ecstasy that's the whole point of the film. He was a deeply religious filmmaker and he used the style as a way to approach the divine. Ozu was much lighter than Bresson, but showed in comedy as well as drama that keen observation requires concentration (on the actors, on what's in the frame, etc) rather than movement. Coppola, as far as I can see, really does nothing with the style of this film. I've never grasped the greatness of Gordon Willis. To me, between the two "greats", neither of them came up with any way of adapting the film to the screen, and more or less settled for filming the novel. I see little difference between the classics illustrated of Coppola and that of Masterpiece Theatre or the so-called art of Merchant Ivory.

VN: Unlike Godfather, Coen's film is greatly influenced by those later works, along with the classic noir films of the 40s (which they've paid their brand of tribute to in the overrated Blood Simple and The Man Who Wasn't There), and uses the camera effectively. The great visual bravura by Barry Sonnenfeld, along with an almost poetic dialogue, makes this film memorable for the way the camera almost makes you smell the rain pouring down the dark and gloomy unknown city of the 20-30s represented in the film. You hear the blood dripping down a man's corpse, you see the emotions on the face of the characters, and it involves you more than any plot manipulations. For this reason, I feel like Miller's Crossing is not only the Coen brothers' finest film, but also one of the best gangster movie of the modern era.

ML: I think it's a great combination of the gangster genre with film noir and comedy. It's great entertainment, and that's all it means to be. Coen's tend to be a bit pretentious and overly jokey, but in their early days they made the kind of films Hollywood didn't have the guts to make. Films that delivered the entertainment Hollywood always talks about by utilizing real people (since they are always 1000 times funnier than Hollyplastic's mannequins on the move), the history of film, and the fact that people knew they were watching a film to their advantage. They were in high end of the film school pranksters that started appearing after children had been conditioned by TV.

VN: It's also ironic to look at the central themes of Coppola's and Coen's films, or better, at the way those men are portrayed: in Godfather, there's an incredible machismo, pride, but women are detached in a way. The woman has a "motherly" look in most of those gangsters films, especially when the characters are of Italian descent, portraying their attachment to their mother, almost elevating the figure of mothers to a divine pedestal, to something to worship. Other than that, women are portrayed like a necessary evil, the same people who will grant X named boss a family, a son, that will continue the legacy of his "family". They're mostly subdued individuals, who suffer greatly from the lack of attention the life of the gangster almost grants. In Coen's film, the women are in charge, at least behind the scenes.

ML: Partly it's the era they grew up in. Puzo & Coppola were around when being a woman meant something different. These days all the media attacks the traditional roles as a way to make more money and eliminate all the opposition - everyone must be superficial and love violence and no one needs to do any real cooking. Partly it's the noir aspect, Marcia Gay Harden, other than not being a crummy artificial yellow head, is straight out of the old noirs.

VN: If you look at the plot, you might think it's roughly like every gangster flick you can imagine, with ethnic gangs divided trying to win control of the city, and fighting a war for respect. What you'd lose not paying attention is that in this film, Joel Coen almost paints a parody of your usual gangster flick, with some of the usual cliches of the genre intertwined with brilliant black comedy, and kind of takes itself less seriously than most films do. The other principal themes are two, the life of Tom Reagan, smart and seemingly heartless gangster among morons, and how women can destroy the mind of men that can hold a gun but not a woman.

ML: It's basically the same thing as Tarantino did a few years later, funny, referential, violent, and a bit offensive. It succeeds in being it's own film, though in essence it's a conglomeration of hundreds that came before.

VN: The film is set up in an unnamed city in the 20s, brilliantly depicted. We see familiar touches like you see in every gangster film, but it doesn't necessarily lead to New York, or Chicago, or Boston. The brilliance of the city recreated here is that it might as well be the place where we live, because it's dark and lawless, not necessarily stuck in a particular era or place. The city is controlled by an Irish gang, lead by the Leo (Albert Finney); on the other side obviously we have the Italians, led by Johnny Casper (Coen regular Jon Polito). Seemingly, the two gangs are trying to come to an agreement, but as you'd expect, there are other motives behind it. The story interlaces many characters, and from the beginning we're catapulted in a world and we aren't given any information on who's who, what is happening and why.

ML: I think it's a typically poor period film. The fact that it's like the world we live in makes it such. Godfather, for all I love to bash it, did evoke the old times, as did Once Upon a Time in America. Once of the Coen's weaknesses is they don't care to bother with details. This might not make a huge difference when it comes to sets, but it's their general malaise toward their characters, their story, their atmosphere that keeps them from greatness. It's this indifference that, in the end, often winds up condescending to their audience just as much as the commercial drivel does.

VN: Many people didn't appreciate the film because of its "convoluted," confusing plot, and because they didn't connect enough with the characters. I respect the Coen's for what they've done here, not selling out to please the usual Hollywood friendly audience (that came when they started making films with the pretty boy George Clooney), they didn't serve you the dish hot and spicy, but instead they gave you all the ingredients to "cook it" yourself, and giving you the chance of feeling rewarded at the end. Certainly, the plot is presented in a way that requires a lot of attention, and it's not easy to grasp at first, but saying this film wasn't good because you couldn't understand what was going on is selling short the director, the writing and style of this film. The situation in Hollywood has become pathetic, with directors (who bow constantly to the producers) who underestimate the audience to the point they give up on even the simplest little piece of subtlety and blow everything out of the water because they're afraid the film would get "too confusing," thus not making enough money to make a sequel. I'm probably BIASED toward non-conventional storytelling, to the point I perversely enjoy films that challenge your mind so much you need to watch them more than once, or twice. My favorite film of all time, even if it won't be a popular choice but who cares, is to me the biggest achievement in storytelling ever, and I'm not selling short the classics of the golden era, nor Scorsese or the great directors of today, but everything else simply pales in comparison to the way Wong Kar-Wai took a dozen characters and perfectly tied them together with Ashes of Time, in an incredibly challenging way, and at the same time rewarding you with incredible looking and poetic visuals. While they will probably never come close to the brilliance of European and Asian directors in doing this, the Coen brothers are one of the best examples of non-conventional storytellers in the US, in the best tradition of the Hitchcocks of the world. They not only craft a great environment for the plot to develop, being helped by perfectly cast performers, reliable cinematographers, set designer and composers, but also do something with the plot, challenge you to come up with your own story, to try to understand the message of the film by yourself, without the help of convoluted tricks to generate emotions or "show off" scenes where gore takes the place of logical events.

ML: The best films are the ones that require multiple viewings. They might not get the best reviews, but they tend to breed cult followings. I'm talking about people like Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais (well, these days shallow heartless plagiarism of his, for instance Memento and Irreversible, gets the following instead), and David Lynch. To me there's nothing about Miller's Crossing that's particularly deep or confusing. If there is, it's due to sloppiness not a dynamic framing device.

VN: From the first moment, the film jumps on a "horse" that isn't easy to follow, that if lost can drive you away from the film, making it irritating or disappointing. We see the characters talk about people we don't know, locations we haven't seen, events we never witnessed. Many people consider this to be something that ruins the enjoyment and detaches you from being interested in the story. This is usual western mentality, in that something has to happen in the right order, something must be developed in the same way, we have to care about a certain character, he's got to have certain traits that involve us in his story enough to follow the film. I feel like the fact we aren't given information over what's happening makes the film even more interesting, because you are asked to keep attention, and thus the film grabs you by the throat and never releases. It's certainly something not easy to do, especially if all you've seen is standard Hollywood fare and aren't ready to see something different and more demanding, but I'll take this over any three-act bullshit the Majors try to pass off as interesting stories.

ML: The great things about good books are that they are truly the vision of one person and they aren't particularly costly. Books may be dying because no one is encouraged to read by anyone beyond teachers (the mother was supposed to do that in the days before she was supposed to be an athlete), but because they've been around so long and risks aren't too expensive narrative devices and framing have had to advance. The cinema isn't advancing because everyone "creating" is so worried about following what works that everyone viewing is bored to death by the sameness. That's one of the things that made Godard great. Anytime he saw a rule, a cliché, anything that was accepted he did it a different way just to show it could be done.

VN: Not only the Coen's pay homage to old gangster and noir films of the golden era, but also they take themes from films you'd never believe they would. In a way, Tom Reagan's character is akin to Sanjuro in Kurosawa's "Yojimbo". He's a "genius" among morons; he manipulates the people around him, but also, unlike Sanjuro, tries to destroy himself because he can't stand his own coldness of hearth. He could easily gamble his way to lead the gang, to make himself a big dog, but instead chooses a devotion to a man he probably despises, and falls prey of a woman he doesn't love. His character, other than being incredibly fascinating, is also brilliantly portrayed: the Coen find great help in Gabriel Byrne, who can give the character a sense of detachment. Many people felt that Tom wasn't likable enough, or wasn't "interesting" enough, but the way the man is portrayed, it perfectly conveys his cold-hearted demeanor.

ML: The con artist aspect is probably what makes it great. I don't believe in the plot in the sense that I'm made to care that much about any of the characters, for better or usually worse that's not the Coen's way, but in this one case the mechanisms are so fascinating that it completely holds my interest nonetheless.

VN: Gabriel Byrne is one of those actors who could act his way through a complete mute role. From the first scene, where we see boss Leo talking with his rival Caspar, he sits staring at the floor 10 minutes, but he projects an aura, his screen presence is so amazing we understand he's almost "above" them. He's a super partes observer, and that makes him stand out. The interesting thing about his character is that unlike the other men, he projects an image of "toughness," of machismo, but he constantly get beat up, to the point the scenes involving this are presented as a caricature of gangster fight scenes. Those scenes are ironic, such as the one where he gets pounded for 2 minutes and leaves with a slight wound in his lip:

Dane: How'd you get the fat lip?
Tom: Old war welt. Acts up around morons.

Some of the best lines are used to define his character, the fact he tries to hide so much and at the same time is trying to find something to cling on. He knows he could beat those men with the help of his intelligence, but instead damages his relationship with Leo to save him, or in a scene that tells everything about his character, tries to feel compassion for someone. You might think that the famous scene where he has to kill Bernie in the woods represents Tom having mercy for him, but it's something else: he's trying to see if he can feel a sentiment, he can trust people. He "tests" himself in a way, save Bernie's life trying to pretend he did because he was interested in Leo and Verna. It's not merely a gentle, brave move; it's a way for him to see if he can still FEEL something, if he can be merciful for once. When he realizes it's all over, his heart is "black," he shatters his beliefs and gives up to his own character, gives up to the fact he can't feel anything, that he's a cold-blooded killer after all.

Unlike many gangster characters, he isn't a winner, and instead loses because of the way he lives. In a different setting, his character might have seemed "cool" or someone able to win 'em all, but in Miller's Crossing, his character is dark, imprisoned by his intelligence, in a world where men almost give up their sanity because of love or violence, and where intelligence is an option. He decides to drink, gamble and get pounded all the time, he decides to fall in love with the woman who his boss loves. He even decides to reveal the truth to Leo, escaping the scene, trying to "join forces" with the rival Casper, and smartly screws him to protect his apparent friend Leo.

ML: We relate to him because, increasingly, the world is a place where intelligence is an option and those that possess some feel like the outsiders. Intelligence becomes something that must be suppressed in order to interact. This character isn't rare, it's just rarely portrayed in the cinematic dream world where all the cool stuff the characters have might have to be attributed to something. I don't admire the character, he's more of a waste than the others, but he's one of the most interesting self destructive characters because his destruction can't be attributed to some kind of defect.

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VN: Byrne's performance is not only excellent, but also VITAL to the success of the film. Sure, you've seen people get famous thanks to their stoned look, their wooden stick expression, but this is not a film where a Charlton Heston or Clint Eastwood would have made a fine choice, because there's a spark in Byrne's eyes, something that gives you information about the character. He rarely opens his mouth, but when he does, it's something meaningful, and many times memorable. I'd christen his performance with one single scene, even if there are many others worth mentioning: we go back to Miller's Crossing, the place where gangs kill their victims; Bernie cries his eyes out, asking for mercy, but as I said, it's not the thing that moves Tom to not kill Bernie. A less scrupulous director/actor relationship would have one of these situations:

1) focusing on Byrne with a long shot involving both two characters, showing in a way that Tom was touched by Bernie's reaction, and maybe with teary eyes couldn't shoot, and gradually put down the gun.
2) having the same shot, on Byrne's face, with him trying to struggle between his real character and mercy, coming to tears, or being nervous, shaking his hand and the gun with it, and at the end, not shooting.

That would have been a lack of attention and would have made what they created for half the film, a character they and Byrne brilliantly portrayed basically meaningless. It's with this scene though that both show their brilliance. The Coens go in deep focus with Byrne, we expect him cringing, trying to shoot even if he hadn't the courage to do (and that would make no sense), but Tom doesn't cringe, he assumes a thinking expression, Turturro's spiel becomes even more over-the-top, and HERE we understand Tom doesn't believe one single word of what he's saying. He knows he'd double cross him the second he turned his back on him, but what's keeping from shooting him is his will to try, even if it's something he realizes it's impossible to achieve, to experience a sentiment toward someone, to care about someone. The focus remains with him, and we see a shot. From that perspective, you'd think Bernie was dead, and Tom was the cold-blooded killer you'd expect. This is simply a masterpiece of a scene, because in a few moments it explains the character, and the both the acting of Gabriel and the directing combine to achieve great success.

Most of the plot centers on the war between the two gangs, and the role Tom assumes. At the beginning, Caspar, the Italian boss, asks Leo for a favor (wink wink Godfather), asks him to take care of Bernie, who's screwing with his gambling, and now he can't even trust his fixed fights: "It's gettin' so a businessman can't expect no return from a fixed fight. Now, if you can't trust a fix, what can you trust? For a good return, you gotta go bettin' on chance - and then you're back with anarchy, right back in the jungle." - Johnny Caspar.

Leo doesn't want to proceed, but not because Bernie is someone he needs, he could kill him the day after, or have him killed by his stooges, but he can't do it because Bernie is the brother of his love affair, Verna. He's afraid if he did that, he'd lose Verna, and he's so blinded by the love for her he'd rather fight a war with Caspar instead of killing Bernie. Tom understands this from the first moment, but the interesting twists, the fact he sleeps with Verna, comes into play when he reveals the fact to Leo. Leo has a really violent reaction, to the point of getting beautifully over the top (Tom gets pounded like a ragdoll), but Tom does so because he sees things in the long run. He suddenly starts working for Casper, and as a proof if he was worthy, Caspar asks Tom to kill Bernie, and this deed will grant him a job with him. The alleged killing of Bernie is probably the crucial part of the film, because we come to realize first Tom's attempt for finding a sentiment, then thanks to Bernie's predictable double cross the realization he can't fight his true nature.

Talking about the plot for this film would ruin the enjoyment, because it's so smartly intertwined that I would be blabbering about things that would take out the enjoyment of finding those things yourself. That is what the director expects, to go out there and find the answers to your question by yourself. What I really want to talk about is what makes the film memorable, apart from the masterful storytelling you'll slowly get into as I mentioned above. This film is stylish, but it's a style that has a meaning, it's not done just for the hell of it. From one of the first scenes, and one of the most beautiful ones in the film, we see a hat, flying between the woods, moved by the wind. The hat represents something like the place where men like Tom hide their secrets. If you pay attention, everyone without a hat on seems vulnerable, and every time Tom loses his, he tries to pick it up in an almost maniacal fashion. Inside that hat it's hidden the secret of his true nature, something he's trying to hide behind his image.

The good thing about the cinematography is that it takes turns into virtuosisms when you least expect it: sure, the shootouts are impressive, especially the one where Leo escapes from his house, to the tune of "Danny Boy", with an incredible use of editing and symbolism. This doesn't look like your usual murder, it borrows pages from Dario Argento and Hitchcock. In a way, every time the gore kicks in, it's done in a different manner, that satisfies you, and it's not gratuitous bloodletting. It's also almost a parody of every single cliché of the gangster formula, from the violence to the black humor you often find here. The virtuosism though is found more in other kinds of scenes, not particularly for fast editing, or for any peculiar filter, camera manipulations. It's all about timing, and how the film focuses on something, in which way, for how long, that makes those images suggestive. It's kind of like the way Shining is filmed, without the ominous pace that instills "fear" more than any gore or action, the main attraction is lost. The scenery is also beautiful, the room Roger Ebert loves so much is one of the perfect scenarios the Coen set up thanks to the designer. It gives a sense of involvement, and while never getting too close to any particular location, the city is recreated and is perfectly filmed, giving it a dark, gloomy look.

Many people think the dialogue is too over the top, but the Coen are known for giving something more with dialogue. It's not the Mamet style of giving simple sentences a great meaning, but it's like reading a novel, it's like watching a bard tell his story. The dialogue is ambitious, but effective, and the delivery makes it almost poetic.

ML: One thing that makes the dialogue so memorable is it's largely "regional". The regional aspect isn't used for realism like Ken Loach, but the fact that they describe things in a way we aren't used to, a way that happens to also be colorful and quite funny, makes it stand above the usual dully scripted gangster swearfests.

VN: Another thing that stands out about Miller's Crossing, and something you see often with Coen features is the great, great acting. I talked about Byrne, but just about everybody is excellent. Albert Finney, who gained fame among today's average moviegoers with his role in Mike's favorite film Erin Crockofshit, is simply excellent. He's another one like Byrne who doesn't particularly need any dialogue to stand out because of his great screen presence. He's the total opposite of Byrne's character. He's a man torn by the love for Verna, so much he has to decide between her and his power over the other gangs. He decides to stay loyal to Verna because eventually he's a lover, a dreamer, he's afraid of losing the only thing that's certain in his life. Finney portrays the character with great charisma, and lets us understand his motives. Leo is not an evil monster; he's a man who's willing to believe in other people. He's probably even blinded by his naivete as well as his love for Verna.

ML: It's a case where the two actors complement each other perfectly. Finney is a broad towering performer, a larger than life character, while Byrne has a quite intelligence. Finney gives you the broad strokes, Byrne the thoughtful glimmer.

VN: Marcia Gay Harden, playing Verna, is the most important character after Tom. She's the woman that outsmarts just about everybody: she'd rather sleep with someone she doesn't care about (Leo), if that means protection for her brother, the most important thing in her life. She obtains what she wants all the time, and her charm always comes back to haunt the people around her. If I have something to complain about is that the character sort of disappeared when the film explored Tom's attempt to find something to cling on, to find a sentiment, but from the beginning Verna has been used like an icon, to represent the woman that outsmarts the man, the woman who's in charge. The Coen finally explore the gangsters' world in a different way, focusing on a thing that was cast off as something unimportant or taken for granted in other films of the same genre. Harden's performance is good, but nothing amazing, probably outshined by the other performances.

ML: Harden rises above cliché only due to the quality of her performance. Since she's cast in the icy goddess role but not what's been defined as "attractive", she gets to do more acting than they often bothered with in the days when Lauren Bacall was supposed to be interesting. That character never grows, but usually has more tricks up her sleeve than Coens bothered with. Once she's established she is left as a secondary tool.

VN: John Turturro is like the American Depardieu, he's able to transform in every sort of character. In Miller's Crossing, he's beautifully plays a double-crossing bastard like Bernie. He steals a lot of scenes he's in because of his incredible energy, and the way he portrays his character. Looking at him, you'd feel like he'd be the weak link judging by his screen presence (by the way he looks, and I'm not talking about acting performance, but unimposing physique, he looks weak all the time), but he adds that spark that make Bernie something more. We see from his performance, especially in the Miller's Crossing scene, that he's a complete liar, and will double cross Tom as soon as possible.

ML: He's great here at playing the slimy little weasel. Finney is the imposing one because he's got the power. Turturro represents the kind of hood that just gets by, winning some but always on the verge of getting rubbed out by the goon of a vengeance seeking boss.

VN: There are other very good performances, like Jon Polito, who takes care of comic relief scenes most of the times. The scene with his son are extremely funny, because of his physical appearance and mannerisms. He's the perfect caricature of the tough "paisan", and shines in most of the scenes he's in. Steve Buscemi is given a really small role but he's creepy in a great way as always, as Mink, the annoying homosexual. One of the most underrated performances of the film is from J.E. Freeman, as the big thug "The Dane". He oozes charisma and looks the part in a great way. He conveys evil like no other can do in the film, and is a great asset to it because of his mannerisms.

ML: The most enjoyable parody of the gangster genre are the scenes with Polito and his tubby dud of a son. It's always the same story where the father is greater than the son, but eventually the son has to take over. Here, we get an only son we can't imagine ever growing up to take over always coming in during business and forcing the gangsters to show an amiable side that doesn't suit them in the least. It's the good kind of interruption, the kind that shows another dimension to the characters and helps us envision them as actual humans.

VN: The soundtrack by underrated Carter Burwell is perfect to set the mood, yet it doesn't go over the top. I especially liked the music used in the Miller's Crossing scene and of course Danny Boy.

This is something that doesn't pretend to compare to Goodfellas, or even to Godfather in a certain way, but comes close to Scorsese's masterpiece (and that's a great achievement already) because of the different way the film moves, for it's greatly involving non-conventional plot, that starts "confusing" but slowly and gradually pieces together, for the great visual style, for the emphasis on the scenery, the great acting and dialogue. It also has the usual touches of black comedy the Coens always smartly intertwine in their films. A really great film, probably because it's so different, yet so involving, no matter what genre you compare it to.




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