Miller’s Crossing ***1/2
One Liner Review:
A fantastically written, mystery of a film complete with rival gangs, a multitude of colorful characters, and clever plot twists.
Miller’s Crossing is one of the only Coen brother’s movies that was made before these guys turned to black comedy. It is a serious movie, like their first film, Blood Simple. Miller’s is their second movie, and like that first one, you can see the talent of this writer/director team in every frame. You can also see what would lead these guys to veer off into black comedy. After all, miller’s crossing isn’t really that far removed from the genre, with characters who seem larger than life, and circumstances that are often more artistic than realistic. Either way a wonderful film is handled with a great amount of detail and care.
The movie is about two different gangland organizations. At the start of the film, one of those crime bosses is visiting the other one, sitting in the man’s office and asking for help. The man asking is Caspar, played by coen regular Jon Polito. He feels insulted by a guy named Bernie who has continued to cross him, repeatedly, when Caspar pays him to fix a boxing match. Caspar wants Bernie dead. He’ asking the big boss, Leo (Albert Finney), for permission to take the guy out. Only Leo is not granting it.
This single event is what leads the two gangs into warfare. From that opening scene, it is hard to tell that Caspar is the leader of a rival gang. He seems like an underling to Leo, asking for permission about something. That is the first way that this movie is different from most others of the same genre. Most other movies would begin with just showing a series of rival battles, like bombings and drive by shootings that each gang does to the other. The cones know to save the excitement for later. They want to open up with some dialogue and character establishment.
It turns out to be the right move, because we learn a lot from this opening conversation. We not only meet the two bosses, but also their two henchmen who back each one of them up in the office. Leo’s henchman or right hand man is tom, played by Gabriel Byrne. He’s actually the main character of the film, playing the only level headed one on screen, kind of like the role played by mark strong in rock n rolls. Caspar’s right hand man is a guy named the Dane, and he sits on a couch in the background listening to the whole conversation.
After Caspar and the Dane leave, unhappy with the results of this discussion, Leo and tom have a few words. Tom thinks Leo should turn Bernie over. He thinks the decision is a no brainer and cannot believe his boss is protecting this guy. He tries to convince Leo that they get nothing out of protecting Bernie, but tom knows the real reason why Leo will not turn him over. Leo has feelings for Bernie’s sister, vernal (Marcia Gay Harden). He has been seeing her and plans to ask her to marry him. He cannot sell out her brother and then expect her to stay with him after that.
The first twist comes early, when we learn that tom is also sleeping with vernal. This love triangle gets right smack in the middle of the business situation. Tom knows that vernal is not faithful and that his boss should not be making decisions based on being with her, only he can’ exactly tell his boss that since he is the one she is being unfaithful to him with. It is a great beginning twist and it really comes out in the first three scenes, before we have even met the Bernie character.
There are other things going on here too. For one, a guy who was also involved with the illegal betting business has just been killed. I love the way a little boy who finds the body takes his wig, and then for the rest of the movie everybody is asking about why the killer took the wig and what kind of message it was supposed to mean. That is what I mean about the coen brothers showing hints in this movie that they were headed in the direction of more comedic fare.
There are a couple of police raids on each of the gangster’s places of business, and the funny thing about this is that on two different occasions tom walks into an office and sees the police captain and mayor sitting in chairs across from a desk, talking to a different crime boss. These guys go from side to side without any loyalty at all, and just support whichever boss is on top or whoever will pay more. Tom is, in many ways, exactly like these guys. He might have more motivation for choosing sides than they do, but he certainly flips back and forth, playing each side against each other, as if he were in Yojimbo, the air crossway film.
At about the halfway point of the film, the Bernie situation gets resolved and that is a great move because it makes it so that the entire movie isn’t all about one thing. It’s not all about whether or not Leo should turn Bernie over and how these two gangs will be going to war with each other until the Bernie situation is off the table. Instead, even after Bernie is out of the way, new problems arise. There is the issue of whether or not tom can be trusted, for one, and whether or not he really did kill Bernie the way he said he did.
There is a lot of fantastic dialogue here that is clever and witty and takes a smart ear to follow. I love the way the coen brothers have characters talk in words that help define who these characters are and that are not part of our typical everyday language. There is also great action here. The scene where Leo’s house is attacked is probably the best scene in the movie, with him taking matters into his own hands. And I love the way the movie has the opportunity to close it’s story with a circular ending, and addresses that possibility, but then turns away and keeps going. That is the coen brothers showing how easy it would be to end the way that most movies do and that they are different. These guys do not want to be predictable at all, and they are not. Instead, they are a force to be reckoned with and miller’s crossing is one of many films that prove this.