BIG HOUSE FILM REVIEWS ~ Roger Westcombe
MILLER’S CROSSING (1990)
Starring Albert Finney, Gabriel Byrne, John Turturro, Marcia Gay Harden, Steve Buscemi; dir: Joel Coen
What else would you expect from a Princeton philosophy grad teamed with his equally pulp-loving cineaste brother than an exploration of the ‘mind/body’ split, articulated through 1930s Hollywood gangster imagery?
Whatever brutalities or sordid corruption they engaged in, it was "always for a reason", Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Reagan, the increasingly isolated and independent underworld protagonist keeps reminding his more instinctive (read: violent) and less reflective confederates throughout Miller’s Crossing. What it earns him is an increasingly gratuitous series of beatings, from which he emerges with little more damage than a bloody lip, his philosophies intact.
Although Tom‘s alliances rotate with kaleidoscopic dizziness through this criminal milieu, his strongest bonds, and thus the film’s central duality, are with local mob kingpin, Leo, an ageing pug perfectly nuanced in a brilliant performance by Albert Finney. The naturalness of their easy bond is subtly underscored by the restrained Celtic brogue each brings to the table, a table as often as not stocked with a tumbler of whiskey.
As always with the Coen Bros. the black comedy in Miller’s Crossing crackles, and here even crunches at times, as it extends to a droll physicality. It’s one of the ways the film works to critique the gangster genre, satirising its denizens and their overly healthy self-images.
Of course it’s a loving portrait by a couple of fans, elaborated to baroque but loving parody such as showing the machine guns lighting up the frame after tearing up a mansion with parallel perforations that send the whole place up in flames.
Nevertheless there’s a chill at the heart of Miller’s Crossing that rebuffs affection, unlike their best films, Barton Fink (1991) and Fargo (1996). Perhaps this is a by-product of the screenplay’s two-stage creation, as they were forced to abandon it halfway through, finding themselves hopelessly stalled and incapable of resolving the plot complexities. (Presumably its uncredited basis, Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key was no help.) Only after switching to convey a writer with writer’s block in Barton Fink were they able to return and unkink their own. By that second half the Cartesian duality in Miller’s Crossing has itself ‘taken a powder’ (the deployment of 30s slang in Miller’s Crossing is supoyb throughout) in favor of an increasingly Byzantine spider’s web, itself a genre stereotype.
A striking feature of Miller’s Crossing is its incongruous, by the standards of a gangster flick, deployment of beautifully serene, autumnal outdoor settings in the eponymous location outside of town which the film’s structure continually brings it back to. Views looking up to the forest canopy gliding peacefully by underline the contrast with the grimy urban environment of violence, sleaze and corruption which harbors and even normalises most of the action. Importantly the settings determine how differently the conflicts will be resolved: in the forest it’s by recourse to the spirit, as the merciful sparing of one life exemplifies, in contrast to the rule of lead justice repeatedly seen in the harsh, garish city settings. Echoing the naturalness of Tom and Leo’s friendship, only in the wild can humanity peak through.
In this visual strategy the film evokes an unusual association with the America-phile film noir of France’s Jean-Pierre Melville, particularly his Le Circle Rouge (RedCircle - 1970), whose similarly wintry scenes of masculine showdown in the muted space of quiet woods evokes a strong resonance.
If that seems a long bow to stretch, consider the bridge between Miller’s Crossing and Melville’s brilliant black and white gangster thriller Le Doulos (1963), which ends with the gangster protagonist’s final fate underlined wistfully by the shot of his fedora coming to rest, alone in the frame, in the dirt of the forest floor, in anticipation of the (likely) homage with which the Coens open their title sequence here, a fedora being blown off its bed of fallen leaves in the forest of their imaginary America.
Roger Westcombe's own website is at: http://www.bighousefilm.com/
For additional material on 'Miller's Crossing' you might want to look at:
Miller's Crossing site - includes full script, production notes, links to reviews and so on http://www.geocities.com/~mikemckiernan/mcfrontpage.html
Jim Emerson on Miller's Crossing - http://www.cinepad.com/reviews/millersx.htm
Miller's Crossing, The Glass Key and Dashiell Hammett by Paul Coughlin, Senses of Cinema, http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/01/19/millers.html