There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you. I really enjoyed our time together. You’re very beautiful, and I’m so lucky I found you. I’m sure you’ll make someone else really happy. Those are all things I could say to Miller’s Crossing. They’re all compliments. And they’re also things you say to someone when you’re breaking up and moving on to something better.
There genuinely is absolutely nothing wrong with Miller’s Crossing (1990), Joel and Ethan Coen’s third feature. It’s a supremely competent genre picture chronicling gangland wars in Depression-era Anywhere, U.S.A. Barry Sonnenfeld’s photography tints the picture an appropriate shade of grey, Carter Burwell’s music is understated and evocative, and Gabriel Byrne was born to play the world-weary antihero at its center. The film will be playing at the Walker Art Center on September 19 and 20 as part of the museum’s Coen retrospective.
The plot, inspired by the Dashiell Hammett novels Red Harvest and Glass Key, revolves around Tom (Byrne), a man who everyone wants to trust. His loyalty is courted in turn by party boss Leo (Albert Finney), up-and-comer Johnny (Jon Polito), and three-faced bookie Bernie (John Turturro, in the first of several memorable turns with the Coens). Tom seems to want to trust himself, to believe that being honest and perhaps even—dare it be imagined—caring will return at least some reward, but it’s not the time and place to entertain such thoughts. His girl Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) swears he’s her man, but she may also have sworn that to a few other guys to protect her brother Bernie. As powers rise and fall, Tom gets yanked around like Jersey Shore taffy, remaining consistently expressionless.
In my review of Raising Arizona, I suggested that it took the Coens a while to begin drawing actual characters. Of course, from the first scene of their first feature their movies overflowed with “characters,” and such are in ample supply in Miller’s Crossing—among them one played by Steve Buscemi, another Coen stalwart making his debut here with a typically brilliant cameo—but actual characters change and evolve. Only Byrne undergoes any real development here, and it’s a very slight change. By the end of the picture he’s capable of something he wasn’t capable of at the beginning (to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a gun is just a gun), but his human decency was already hanging on by such a bare thread that his transformation is like a second shoe hitting the ground. You knew it was going to drop, you just didn’t know exactly when.
Miller’s Crossing is (deliberately, of course—this being the Coens) a far cry from the hyperkinetic comedy of Raising Arizona, but nor does it have the nail-biting suspense and primal intensity of Blood Simple. It’s most interesting, in fact, when seen as a sort of inversion of the Blood Simple formula: instead of violence suddenly ripping into ordinary lives, Miller’s Crossing has a man living a violent life but yearning for a bout of shocking ordinariness.
Jay Gabler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
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