The reputation of Miller’s Crossing precedes it here on Row Three where virtually everything the Coen Brothers do is canonized as quip-worthy gold. This marathon is an curious endurance test for me on the one hand as I am seeing films by directors that I am, shall we say, less enthusiastic about than most, yet for each, whether Sam Mendes, Brian DePalma, Steven Soderbergh, or the Coen Brothers, I would like nothing more than to share in the chorus of adulation. While these directors have won me over on occasion, their careers are spotty at best and not nearly as unblemished as others here attest to in their regular worship sessions.
With the exception of Intolerable Cruelty, I have seen every Coen Brothers film. Of these thirteen films, maybe five of them have I truly enjoyed. The Coens are masters of composition and visual flare, and as screenwriters they are wry and intelligent wordsmiths. I don’t question their talents in these regards so much as I question the underlying motivations they are employed towards. Far too often the matters of storytelling take a secondary importance to the primary interest in stylistic wit. Films such as Fargo, No Country for Old Men and Blood Simple are rare examples of the directors using proper restraint both in their scripts and in their visual styles to best serve the stories and themes. More often than not, the conceit of reappropriating cinematic conventions is foremost on their minds, the style determining the story. More than even Tarantino, the repurposing demagogue of modern cinema, the Coen Brothers have made their films more about film history than life as it is lived. Like Tarantino, their saving grace is that they are funny, and the pastiche rifts they employ do amount to laughs, when laughs are what is intended.
Still, that they sample legendary filmmakers and iconic films does not by association make them a part of that league of talent, and yet there seems to be a consensus that because their films take on the accoutrements of greatness they too must be great. There is a fundamental difference between stories that have something to say about the world and stories that cannot look beyond their own stylistic myopia. There is a difference between David Bowie and Vanilla Ice, though they may use the same basic sounds, the act of sampling is by and large an inferior form of art-making. Yes all art is fundamentally theft, but there needs to be something on your mind outside of the theft that justifies its creation, and with the Coen Brothers, more often than not, I don’t see anything outside of the movie conventions they wish to repurpose, I don’t see the original germ of a story that the style is in service of.
This is my long way of getting around to saying I didn’t like Miller’s Crossing. In precisely the manner I have been describing, this film is inscrutably divorced by any mandate of coherent and effective storytelling, and is instead reduced to a bunch of vignettes that work in isolation as comedic short film concepts. Dialogue is deliberately abstracted by idiom overload, mashing together bits and pieces of a lexicon from 30’s gangster films and Looney Tunes cartoons, and the intent is clearly to focus less on what the characters are trying to say to each other and revel in the witty poetics of the surface effect. And it is funny, don’t get me wrong, but to the sacrifice of the story, and to character. This was my first viewing of Miller’s Crossing, and I genuinely have no idea what happened, all I can piece together is that Gabriel Byrne plays a sort of Yojimbo role between warring gang factions, and that over the duration of the film many double-crosses are played out. Like I said before, I am not sure knowing what happened is even the point for the Coen Brothers, here more than anywhere else, it is glaringly clear that the surface ornament of the film is what interests them most. They revel in the details, the unusually long rooms that draw emphasis to the staginess of their production, the constant play on the hats as something actors more so than actual gangsters would I suspect be emphatic about, and the cartoony use of tommy guns and police raids, all playing off of the foreknowledge of the conventions, all smug in their enjoyment of rendering them in new and esoteric contexts.
Miller’s Crossing always stood out as a film I should watch as far back as seeing the very first VHS cover design in my local rental store, with its evocative image of a man being taken out into the woods by gunpoint presumably to be executed. That scene in particular was the stand-out of the whole movie, and I dare suspect the whole ambition of the film was built around that germ of an idea, of which all the story surrounding it is just fodder to play it out. In the process a lot of talent is wasted, in particular Albert Finney and Gabriel Byrne who chew the fat tediously. John Turturro and Jon Polito on the otherhand, are on fire throughout this film and make it worth watching just for their squeamishly burlesque performances. All in all, I consider Miller’s Crossing a minor work in the Coen Brothers’ back catalogue, somewhere alongside The Hudsucker Proxy and The Man Who Wasn’t There, a film that best illustrates how insubstantial their storytelling interests can be all for the sake of a couple clever punchlines.
Check out this Siskel and Ebert review of Miller’s Crossing, for once I am in complete agreement with Roger: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAOftHEeUjI (sorry it won’t embed)
This is case where I think the trailer is better than the movie, and frankly makes more sense:
Master of War