Thursday, January 30, 2014

Miller's Crossing

The Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing came out in 1990, when I was 17, and I almost certainly watched it for the first time on a VCR in my parents' living room. Coming back to it over 20 years later reveals a film of unconsidered depths and makes me think about just how much time I've spent watching films I wasn't ready to appreciate. As with many of the earlier Coen films the plot is knotty and the dialogue coded, as if the directors had stumbled upon characters speaking their own language in a place very much like our own. Tom (Gabriel Byrne) is part of a criminal organization run by Leo (Albert Finney) sometime circa the 1930's. Leo is secure in his control until Caspar (Jon Polito) starts making noise about killing a bookie named Bernie (John Turturro) who's talking too much about Caspar's fight fixing. Tom has no taste for killing personally but he understands how getting rid of Bernie will help Leo maintain power. Leo disagrees, and matters aren't helped by the fact that he and Tom are both in love with Bernie's sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). The bulk of Miller's Crossing is Tom digging himself out of the hole he's in with Leo. There is an image of Tom's hat on the ground that recurs throughout the film, and the hat figures in a dream that Tom recounts to Verna. Throughout the film our perceptions of characters change; Caspar is a violent boss and a doting father to his son (the Coen's mannered humor doesn't come off here) and both Bernie and Caspar's hit man Eddie (J.E. Freeman) are motivated by love for the same person. (Quiet subversion: a gay love triangle drives the story.) Tom is the one character who's fixed, it just takes him the entire film to realize it. When Tom's hat goes on for the last time then he, and we, know exactly who he is.

Two scenes linger: Bernie, whom Turturro plays with a keen nastiness, pleads for his life when Tom takes him out in the woods to shoot him. The scene is performative on multiple levels. Tom must convince Caspar's men he's a killer while Bernie's bawls to play into Tom's view of him as a "degenerate", weak gay man. Miller's Crossing was the film where I saw Turturro for the first time and he's terrific a man scrambling for his place in a criminal ecosystem. There is a scene earlier on in which Caspar's men attack Leo at his house and, to the strains of "Danny Boy", Leo puts them down. Finney was in good shape he when shot this movie (though his stunt double earns his money too), and while it's a pleasure to watch him dart around with a machine gun the violence also points up the degree to which Leo's reign is about pure force. Those who deride the Coens as soulless stylists are missing a great deal in Miller's Crossing; while the humor is deadpan and the rooms are a little too big this is a dark journey about a tightly closed world where trust is the only currency that matters. Two decades and a few Oscars later, I'd call Miller's Crossing the Coen's first masterpiece.

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