Miller’s Crossing

Joel & Ethan Coen

9/10 (not sure it has any deeper meaning)

This is probably my favorite Coen brothers film (“Big Lebowski” would be the chief competitor). It oozes style, and the brothers are arguably at their best when they’re doing noir. It is one of their more serious films, but offers plenty of zany Coen-style comedy as well, long before they started being weird just for the sake of weird (i.e. “Burn After Reading”).

The cinematography is impeccable, and the dialogue is fantastic. The acting is pretty flawless as well, my only complaint being with Gabriel Byrne as the protagonist. While his wooden tough guy plays well through the majority of the film, there are times when I think a little more emotion would have been appropriate (chiefly in the first Miller’s Crossing scene with Bernie, the last scene with Bernie, and the last scene with Leo). This could have been a direction from the Coens, but I think Byrne crosses the line from subtlety into opacity. It gives the entire film an ambiguity that I’m sure the Coens love, and that even I enjoy to a degree. But ultimately it borders on pretentiousness. I can imagine them thinking, Well (ahem), not sure exactly what this all, y´know, means and all, but we can just make it ambiguous and the audience will think it’s supposed to be that way, then we’re off the hook. We might even get called “arty”! (See “No Country for Old Men“)

John Turturro and Albert Finney are fantastic. J.E. Freeman as The Dane is wonderful, and Jon Polito is hilarious as the ethical mobster. I dare people not to laugh out loud at the scene where his fat son comes in and interrupts him and he smacks him right in the face (“Aww, did somebody hit you?”), or when 60-year-old Leo agilely jumps from his burning second-story window and fires about three hundred rounds at four different guys. It is the perfect mixture of over-the-top straight-faced comedy with a serious moral subject matter. The Bernie resurrection scene at Tommy’s apartment is a masterpiece in itself: flawless dialogue, direction, and acting.

Each scene is eminently compelling and the whole thing never lags. The main problem is that as a whole, the film suffers from a lack of clarity. I’ve seen it three times but am still not sure what is the moral of the story, or even the point. What is Byrne´s Tommy supposed to represent? Nihilism and no more? I read one review that argued that the whole movie was a homosexual love story between Tommy and Leo, and to be honest it’s as strong an argument as any other I’ve ever come across.

It’s the ambiguity that both attracts and repels me. I want to believe it’s a masterpiece, yet I have to recognize that I could simply be falling victim to the Coens’ pretention.

17 March 2010

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