Monday, June 15, 2009

Miller's Crossing

Miller's Crossing, 1990
Dir: Joel Coen (and Ethan Coen)
June 14, 2009
Netflix Wakefield MA

Miller's Crossing is a really good film. The Coen's take on the 30's Gangster film is filled with a lot more pithy dialogue, along with their signature black humor, than most of these flicks (uhh, I'm looking at you Road to Perdition. The Untouchables?? Are you serious? We'll see how Public Enemies is later this summer) and is also, from what I've seen, just a better made film. The noir aspects aren't as heavy as they are in Barton Fink, but there are still enough to keep you thinking while also enjoying the zingers and the shoot-em-ups.

Tom (Gabriel Byrne) is an adviser for Leo (Albert Finney), a strong-armed Crime Boss who runs the city. Leo is clearly muscle who has bludgeoned his was to the top, and doesn't often see, as Tom puts it, "all the angles." Trouble starts when Italian rival Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), a seriously conflicted gangster who has trouble wrestling with the ethics of the business ("You double-cross once - where's it all end? An interesting ethical question."), needs to bump Bernie (John Turturro), a bookie who's been giving out too much information on fixed fights. Leo's main squeeze, or gun moll, is Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), Bernie's sister, so Leo isn't going to let it go down. Tom thinks it's the wrong move, but Leo won't budge, and the power struggle ensues. Tom has to do a lot of juggling from then on to set things "right."

The strangest part of the film has to be the sexual undercurrent running between three men: Bernie, Mink (Steve Buscemi) another bookie, and The Dane (J.E. Freeman), Caspar's ferocious right hand man whose hatred of women is clear in the scene where he goes to confront Verna: "I'll kill all you whores!" While it's never explicitly said that these relationships are happening, it's pretty obvious what's going down. A nervous Mink talks to Tom at the beginning about the trouble brewing, and Tom quips that Mink has too many "amigos." Bernie, on the other hand, states that one can never have too many friends, and his relationship with Mink seems to be more about getting an "in" than anything else, which it turns out is the type of person Bernie is, or as Tom puts it, "a grifter." Verna merely says that he is "different," but that clearly translates as homosexual in the subtext. The Dane, who is clearly the "whacko-homo" in the triangle, defends Mink even when he can't be found for questioning, and seems to generally care for him. Johnny says that he knows that they are "boys," whatever that means. Johnny's insistence to kill Bernie might stem from a persistent Dane, who sniffs that something is up between Mink and Bernie. Overall it was a subtle and clever thing to throw into a gangster film which usually eschews that sort of thing.

The death of a low-level muscle man, who Leo sent to watch Verna, sets some things in motion that Tom really didn't want to happen. Who killed him? No one's quite sure, but fingers are pointed at Johnny in Leo's camp. Tom knows better, because Verna has been sleeping with him, so he thinks that Verna must have done it to keep the relationship a secret. Johnny's joints are raided. Johnny then calls for a hit on Leo in his Crime-Boss mansion, but it fails, and a quick-thinking Leo proves that he has more power with a tommy-gun in his hands than he is sitting behind a desk making decisions. It's one of the most awesome scenes in the movie. Then a whole gang-war erupts that sees power shift from Leo to Johnny, and forces Tom to pick a new team after he tells Leo about Verna, thinking that the jig must be up. The death of Rug, the tailer, was actually at the hands of Mink however, who thought that The Dane had "spies" tailing him. Bernie says later that Mink was terrified that The Dane would find out that they were "jungled up together." So the whole war pretty much stems from a minor character (Mink), who gets caught between two lovers, one who is using him and another who actually cares for him.

With great acting and directing, there's not a whole lot to find wrong about the film, though the 30's jargon and accents made me wish I had turned on the subtitles a few times. They way that Tom plays both sides off each other is pretty brilliant, and at the end, we find out that what Tom says a few times in the film rings true: "You never really know someone."

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