Miller’s Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

27Apr10

Gabriel Byrne (Tom Reagan), Marcia Gay Harden (Verna), Jon Turturro (Bernie Bernbaum), Jon Polito (Johnny Caspar), Albert Finney (Leo), Steve Buscemi (Mink). Screenplay by Joel & Ethan Coen. Directed by Joel Coen. Rating: 15. Running time: 115 minutes.

Let me say from the outset, I absolutely love the Coen brothers. I’ve adored everything I’ve ever seen by them, and I’ve always felt I’ve understood what they’re trying to do. But that streak finished today with Miller’s Crossing, a very odd early effort of theirs that I really, quite simply, just don’t get.

It’s a classic gangster movie with deception, crossings, double-crossings and probably even triple-crossings. It’s a plot-driven-movie heading somewhere and with a visual style that makes it feel dark, serious, and dare I say it, even noir. But then at the same time it isn’t any of these things. It’s not trying to be just another crime movie packed with trickery and twists (though it has them). Nor is it trying to be representative of how real gangsters act and think. It’s not even about what happens. The characters all deliver their lines either humorously or very matter-of-factly, as if the film wants to be darkly funny and not really about its plot, even though it looks and seems like it will be a serious gangster film.

And I suppose that’s exactly what Fargo did when it was sold as a film about a true crime when it was actually not really about straight storytelling at all. Miller’s Crossing feels stuck, even if it did come first, between the sincerity of No Country For Old Men which the nature of its story suggests, and the humour of Fargo that its directorial style implies. But the fact that the characters are more normal and should be in these kind of situations is why it doesn’t feel right. Fargo and The Big Lebowski worked because they put non-criminals in hilariously criminal situations. Miller’s Crossing wants to be funny and different like them when its setting and story line and characters mean it can’t be. And the result just feels like a mess.

One scene makes me wonder if I’m missing something. The opening is very reminiscent of the Godfather’s: there’s the local mafia don who controls the city’s police force, and he’s being asked a favour from the other side of his desk. As you’ve probably guessed, it’s delivered to feel a lot less gloomy, but this doesn’t stop me pondering the thought that the entire film is littered with references to the history of crime and noir movies, given its almost mocking take on the genre, and I wonder whether knowledge of this would make it a generally more rewarding film to watch.

If so, I’m sorry for not knowing my film history well enough, though I had thought I was relatively well versed in it. Ultimately, all I can say is that Miller’s Crossing feels wrong.

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One Response to “Miller’s Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)”

  1. 1 Joshua Dixon

    I don’t quite understand this review, or why you’re so desperate to make some sort of ‘sense’ of it in terms of cinematic context. I don’t really think the brothers are trying to ‘do’ anything in particular. That said, it could be a spoof AND a homage at the same time (like Scream). Very few noirs lack a comedy element. This is all by-the-by, as I just find the film stylishly entertaining; if you don’t then fair-do’s. Considering my treatment of Pierrot Le Fou I can hardly complain.

    If you want to get properly well-versed in cinematic history, you can do no better than Mark Cousins’ The Story Of Film, which focusses on the evolution of cinematic technique and schema. I think you’d find it invaluable.


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