08/11/2013

Miller's Crossing (1990)

Film: Miller's Crossing
Release: 1990, Theatrical
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro
Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
IMDB page: link opens in a new window
Description: The advisor to a prohibition-era crime lord becomes the only person holding back an all out war between the competing families.

Hans' thoughts:

1919-1933, the consumption and dealing of alcohol is prohibited throughout the United States of America. Ironically, the men and women who were involved in creating the now notorious underground bars and smuggling passages has since then become national folk heroes. Like so many other movies, there is "Miller's Crossing" - a straight up crime drama following men with more vices than can be counted on a hand. Our hero is Tom Reagan, a classic mobster with ties to an Irish crime family that runs the city he lives in. He's considered one of the top advisors, second only to the boss himself. It's said that he's "always got the angle" on what is going on around town. Of course that isn't as true as it would first seem. While our main character certainly seems self-confident and always on top of things (played excellently by Gabriel Byrne) it quickly becomes apparent to the audience that he might have bitten off more than he can chew. He's a character that's been seen before, reminiscent of main characters from detective noir films. He's very much a "man's man", keeping his stoic demeanor in the face of a life threatening situation and always with a quick line to throw at others. This is also where we see one of the main qualities of the Coen bros., if I had to pick only one thing they do well it would be their way with words. 

Now a short admission is in order, I have not seen all that many Coen Bros. movies. This is not because I dislike their movies or because they only dabble in genre's that fall outside my personal preference. No, instead it simply wasn't in the cards. Watching this movie, I can certainly see what I've been missing out on. Between memorable characters, funny lines and just plain beautifully done shots I cannot believe I didn't wise up to these guys sooner. Gangster movies set in this era is one of my favorite sub-genres. I love the way they talked, the look of most of these films with the pinstripe suits and the tommy guns, and I just love how folksy the silent respect between even notorious crime lords were - according to these kinds of movies at least. If you were hoping for a super realistic look at prohibition-era crime syndicates, this isn't the place to look. This very much rehashes the tropes of the genre. This isn't to say that that's necessarily a bad thing, in fact I'd say this is one of the best crime syndicate movies out there. Our main character of Tom Reagan is also a bit more relatable than that of The Godfathers' Michael Corleone. I say "main character" and not "hero", because while Tom certainly tries to prevent a war in the criminal underworld, there is not much in the way of good deeds in his repertoire. The man has a end game, and it seems like he may be a bit more ambitious than he first lets on. What exactly he's actually up to during all this is of course up to you to find out by watching the movie.

Our other characters are pretty good as well, there is no one in the film that I would characterize as the "main villain". None of these people are good guys and everybody is in for themselves in the end. The actors all do a terrific job, but I wouldn't feel right if I didn't mention the very minor but memorable appearance of Steve Buscemi as the nervous fast talking Mink. He talks so fast in the one scene he shows up in that it was actually kinda hard to follow what he was saying, though I am pretty sure I got the general idea. As for our female lead, I'm sad to say there is not much to her. She seems like your average 30's femme fatale who does bad things to get along in a man's world. This is not to say that she's not interesting at all but she does come off as a tad too generic and one-off, which is sad when you think about how good the writing is in almost all other areas.

Jon Polito as Johnny Caspar
Our two crime bosses in the movie are played by Jon Polito and Albert Finney. We don't get much face-time with Finney as most of the movie takes place in the Polito camp, but what we see is pretty good. Finney's character gets one of the movie's few action scenes and it is very well done, from the sound work to how well the events are strung together Finney really makes an impression, like Buscemi, in spite of how little we actually see of him. Polito plays a much larger role in the movie, and for what it's worth I found him funny as the character of the up and coming boss Johnny Caspar. Though I have to say for whatever reason, and this might be the comic guy in me speaking, I couldn't stop picturing him as a new take on the Batman villain The Penguin. His methods are very akin to the character and had it not been for Polito's character being a lot more dignified it would have been an almost perfect live-action adaptation. I very much doubt that the Coen bros. had the Gotham City crime boss in mind when they wrote the character, but I just feel I have to put it out there.

The plot of the movie is, unpredictable to say the least. Every time I thought I knew in what direction the movie was going a new event comes in and changes the goals of our main character, if only temporarily. One moment the movie seems like it heading in a Romeo & Juliet-esque direction and the next everything is about something completely different. Unlike the main character of Tom Reagan, the audience is never let in on him "knowing all the angles". He seems to be able to predict most of the events that are coming long before they do and when he's actually surprised - so is the audience right along with him. You never know what the characters are going to do because unlike so many other movies you are never let in on their secret plans or their actual motivations. Things happen just as they would in the real world and it seems at times like we are right there observing it from a safe distance. We're also left completely in the dark about certain things, what is the name of the city? What is the last name of one of our crime bosses? What exactly is the balance of power in the city? We're never told that because we don't need to - focus is kept quietly on following things from the eyes of our main character and nothing is mentioned without it sounding natural in dialogue. From the Fox logo, the very first sound we hear is that of ice cubes in a whisky glass and from then on we are shown a tale of a life in the criminal underworld during the prohibition. 
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