The Coen Brothers combine gangster with noir and deliver something very dark, mysterious, dangerous but also graceful and smooth through Miller’s Crossing. This is a film that perhaps doesn’t reach Barton Fink or A Serious Man as far as a very intelligent and original storyline goes, but is definitely one of the most visually gripping noirs the duo has created and all the performances offered by its incredible group of actors are mind-blowing.
The Coens know very well how to create a delightfully threatening atmosphere, in which eccentric characters will operate and very funny lines will be spoken. Even when there’s no dialogue, the situations are absurd, ominous, but still somehow comical. This is even more the case in Miller’s Crossing where most of the scenes have the viewers unsure of whether they should cover their eyes or laugh. There is a fair amount of violence, but more than anything, it’s the constant threat of violence that keeps you on your toes. At the same time, the beauty of the visuals and the plenty humoristic touches relax you and allow you to enjoy pure cinema.
Another thing the Coen Brothers know well is how to put together a mean cast that can combine menace with high-class comedy. In Miller’s Crossing, Albert Finney, Gabriel Byrne, Jon Polito and John Turturro are given the four main roles and succeed in taking their scripted characters to places they would have never visited if they were to be trusted in different actors. The lead gangster’s necessary love interest is Verna, played by Marcia Gay Hayden, who is essentially an evil noir character, interacting with criminals from a very different genre, something only the Coens would have managed to balance out this skillfully. Gabriel Byrne as Tom Reagan is subtle, quiet, mysterious. His elegance makes him appealing, but never harmless. His desire to bring peace between gangsters at war classifies him as the nicest possible guy in a ruthless bunch of criminals. Still, his silence makes him unpredictable and trusting him does not seem to be an option.
Jon Polito is brilliant as Johnny Caspar – the dedicated supporter of what he calls “business ethics”, and John Turturro is nothing but hilarious as the two-faced Bernie Bernbaum who spends a good amount of time in the film pleading “I’m praying to you, look in your heart”, before he is spared his life only to go back and live it the exact same way that led him to this moment.
However none of this is half as brilliantly written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen or as compellingly interpreted by any of the actors, as Leo’s magnificent shooting scene starting from his bedroom but expanding out on the street and to the forest surrounding his house. There are no words to describe Albert Finney’s extraordinary skills as an actor in general, but in this scene, one has to wonder whether his talent as an actor and the directors’ gift for unbelievable visuals are even normal. Sometimes Joel, Ethan and Albert impress us a bit too much, and this is just one of those moments.
It is true that the narrative often becomes predictable and at times even tiring. But there is no doubt that the elegant visuals and the brilliant performances make up for this fully. The Coens evoke the 1930s and 1940s forcefully and use the forest in a way that allows it to play its strong part, turn into another criminal, another gangster, sometimes working for one team, others for the opposite one. Space is in general used very creatively in Miller’s Crossing, big rooms, wide open spaces, hallways, staircases, everything plays a role that is hard to miss and all of it together adds to the overall Coen Brothers chic. Cold, dark, stylish, slow, disturbing but also humorous and absurd, this gangster noir combines smooth killing with unbelievable acting.
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The Coen Brothers (by Theo Alexander)