Monday, August 3, 2009

What Will the Knutsens Think?

Miller's Crossing
Indieplex via DVR

I wrote yesterday that I had seen all the Coen brothers' movies except for Blood Simple. Whoops! Forgot about this 1990 period piece, made towards the end of the phase of the brothers' career where they had to give their lead roles to outside "name" actors. Shortly afterwards they were to reach a level of notoriety that allowed them to use Frances McDormand and Bill Macy as leads if they felt like it; some time later they became so high-profile that most of their close personal friends now are major Hollywood movie stars.

Gabriel Byrne never quite gets the accent or the tone for his character Tom Reagan (Robert Duvall in The Godfather, of course, was Tom Hagen) right, although Miller's Crossing otherwise boasts a number of good performances. John Turturro and Steve Buscemi, Coen regulars, get a wonderful speech apiece. Albert Finney is dominating without being physically imposing as a crime boss and Jon Polito steals the picture as his rival. Marcia Gay Harden is a bit miscast as the two-timin' dame who brings all these hard men into conflict, but the movie's shortcomings are more on the filmmakers than the actors.

The two leads are the ones we see by far the most of, since Miller's Crossing is structured much like The Big Lebowksi (and the countless noirs that inspired them both). The lead investigates a mystery, running into a number of shady characters along the way, all of whom are exceedingly colorful and inhabit dazzling sets. Here Joel and Ethan Coen are mixing and matching elements of noir and more sprawling gangster epics. The sets, which are both minimalist and colossal, reflect this uncomfortable blend. Noir movies with their slow pace and smaller scale usually put more emphasis on character. Gangster movies almost universally emphasize plot, as the casts of characters themselves tend to shift over the longer time periods involved. Miller's Crossing has a small cast of speaking roles and a big cast of extras; it nails transparent details from both of the genres it has feet planted in but gets the subtleties of neither. Specific scenes that ought to pay off for the characters don't because the technical shotmaking and directing is so distracting. One, where Finney turns into the Terminator and annhiliates an entire army of gangsters sent to assassinate him in his bed, is so memorably over the top (reminiscent of a similar inferno in Barton Fink) that you forgive it for turning the movie temporarily over to exploitation violence. Another, where Finney's character finally realizes his girl is no good and his right-hand man betrayed him, stops working on an emotional level the moment Byrne is pushed backwards into a hallway with 20 times more extras than necessary and then staggers backwards through a series of abstractly beautiful camera angles. Frequently in slow motion.

You're probably not that big of a Coen fan if there isn't a bit of pure cinemaphile in you, something in your soul that sees oversized prop tommy guns swaying up a stairway in unison in closeup that sings a little. Miller's Crossing delivers an above-average number of phenomenal compositions and signature editing tricks (and sound design marvels, like when a close lens zooms out from a record rotating on a victrola and the tune is muffled until the camera pulls out far enough so that we can see the trumpet-shaped speaker). It's similarly filled with dialogue so tasty the actors seem loathe to relinquish speaking it and many characters and costumes that are pitch-perfect. Sadly, nothing of consequence really happens in any of these beautiful shots, sets, and hats (Byrne's hat, in particular, is better than the actor sitting under it). It's hard to do everything right every time.

Also: More movies should have gratuitous director-buddy cameos as good as Sam Raimi's in this film.

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