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A Double-Dipped Coen


By Adam E. Pachter, (The mag's own Siskel & Ebert)

DON'T see Miller's crossing if you enjoy sunshine. The latest offering from the creative duo Joel and Ethan Coen revels in its murkiness, figurative and literal. Not only is the plot as dense and convoluted as the Dashiell Hammett novels which inspired it, but virtually every scene is shot in semi-darkness. And all the characters wear dark, slouched clothing.

It's an admirable effect, and Miller's Crossing is stuffed with those intense and memorable moments for which the Coen brothers are rightly celebrated. But ample darkness doth not a great film make, and Miller's Crossing is not as original and distinctive a film as viewers of Coen films Raising Arizona and Blood Simple have come to expect.

It boasts forceful acting, focused direction, and a skillful use of language. But intrusive plot complications, a deliberately oppressive seen this all before sabotage what could have been a great cinematic effort.

Any intensive plot description here would confuse rather than clarify. So I'll confine myself to saying that Miller's Crossing depicts several days in the life of Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), a hard-drinking, heavy-gambling political operative, as he maneuvers on both sides of a bloody gang war.

Driven from the good graces of Leo (Albert Finney), a powerful Irish boss, Tom flees to the camp of Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), Leo's hot-headed Italian rival. Oh, by the way, Tom loves Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), Leo's mistress, but has to kill Bernie (John Turturro), Verna's brother, because he's Johnny's enemy.

Anyway, as director Joel Coen as remarked, in Miller's Crossing the plot "is like a big jigsaw puzzle that can be seen in the background. It may make some internal sense, but the momentum of the characters is more important."

Fair enough, but the problem with this film is that the ostensibly secondary story becomes a major distraction. This plot is far too rich and thick for its avowed purpose; the frequent twists and turns attract our attention but never reward it. In this sense Miller's Crossing resembles Jack Nicholson's summer feature The Two Jakes; both films devote excessive space to plot nuances they later dismiss as irrelevant.

Miller's Crossing is not without its compensations. The Coen brothers have lost none of their visual flair, and they display an uncanny ability to create moments of haunting beauty. One example is the scene in which Tom takes Bernie out to Miller's Crossing, a patch of woods near town where gang "hits" often occur, to kill him.

Turturro, whose performance as Sal's racist son in Do The Right Thing gave no indication of the dramatic range he displays here, breaks down and pleads for mercy, spewing out words in the hope that some of them will save his character's life. Ethan Coen has said that the passion play enacted between these two was the image from Miller's Crossing sprung; it is certainly the film's most indelible.

Another bonus is the language which the characters use, a delicious blend of speakeasy jargon and rough poetry. Almost every conversation begins with the delightful phrase, "What's the rumpus?," and the actors trade smart phrases with a casual abandon. "What's the matter? Afraid somebody's got the right idea about you," Tom tells Verna, and he later refers to an "old war wound" that only "acts up around morons."

Later, when hit man Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman) suspects that Tom hasn't really killed Bernie, he informs Tom, "If we don't find a stiff out here we leave a fresh one." And the corrupt Mayor of the town responds to Tom's declaration, "I voted for you six times", with a sharp "And that ain't the record."

As Tom, who keeps his own counsel while constantly shifting loyalties, Gabriel Byrne gives an impressive performance. Byrne habitually plays unsympathetic characters (his Lord Byron in the Ken Russell film "Gothic" is a good example), but his direct and uncompromising portrayals win our respect. Viewers don't have to understand or even like Tom's moral universe, but we never question his allegiance to it.

Miller's Crossing strives to be a great film, and it does contain moments of astonishing power. Unfortunately, the Coen brothers' pledge never to plow old ground in new movies rings false here. This film is reminiscent of Blood Simple; it replaces the revolving fan motif in that film with a hat motif here but retains a similar dark, tight texture and a focus on the themes of loyalty and betrayal.

This is pardonnable; what hurts Miller's Crossing is that it echoes the mood of inferior films like Angel Heart, which the Coen brothers did not make.

And while the Coens may be excused for using traces of their earlier excellent films, they are much too talented to be sampling anyone else's fare. Miller's Crossing could have been a superb film, but this movie is unable to transcend its lack of originality.

Miller's Crossing Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen with Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney

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