Miller's Crossing
Director: Joel Coen. Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Joe Polito, J.E. Freeman, Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand. Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen.

Miller's Crossing might, in its way, be the most important movie in the Coen brother's canon, but for me, at least, it also ranks as one of the most frustrating. Closer to the enormous gizmo-ness of Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy than the equally studied but much more inviting Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Fargo, this gangster-movie-cum-noir-spoof has enough plot and ambition for four pictures. Gabriel Byrne stars as Tom Reagan, a mobster in the sometimes reluctant employ of a kingpin named Leo (Albert Finney, most recently seen as Julia's partner-boss in Erin Brockovich). The film begins, in an obvious nod to The Godfather, with a character named Caspar (Joe Polito) begging the powerful Leo to do him a favor: in this case, rubbing out an "unethical" bookie named Bennie. Despite his fondness for Caspar, Leo refuses to dispense with Bennie because he is the brother of Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), a tough-as-nails broad (think Annette Bening in Bugsy) who sleeps with the much older Leo in return for his protection of Bennie.

In a movie full of sidewinder complications, the most important is that Byrne's character is also Verna's very jealous lover. Obviously, his appetite for her and his loyalty to Leo are a combustible combination, and with so many loose cannons running around—particularly the irate Caspar, the insufferable Bennie, and an always-scowling hood named Dane with uncertain allegiances of his own—Tom is in for his fair share of beatings. Actually, many more than his fair share. A running gag in Miller's Crossing is that Byrne is forever getting punched, kicked, and battered by all the people he threatens and angers. The purposefully absurd frequency of these assaults is emblematic of all sorts of excess on display in Miller's Crossing; in addition to the bounty of characters and heap of plot twists, the film contains several repeated shots, a flood dialogue with its own tendency to reprise itself, and a seemingly endless series of expensive-looking sets and costumes that, as in Hudsucker dazzle in their Art Deco detailing even as they flaunt their own artificiality. Even the found locations seem unbelievably outsized, including a thicket of infinitely tall trees. (The geographical relationships within the unnamed city, and between the city and the outdoors, is kept stubbornly but amusingly vague.)

Ultimately, this combination of visual abundance, narrative overflow, and relentless self-consciousness made Miller's Crossing, for all its technical proficiency and enterprising spirit, a bit wearying to sit through. The Coen brothers not only expect their audience to keep track of a byzantine plot, but we are clearly meant to appreciate both the critiques of genre (gangland melodrama, noir thriller, slapstick comedy) and references to specific films (The Godfather, On the Waterfront, even Diabolique in reverse) they plant like cherry bombs all over the picture. That's a lot to demand of a viewer, and though I'm all for jolting audiences out of their complacency—don't get me wrong, I'd watch Miller's Crossing again in a minute before I'd return to Hollywood drivel from the same year like Home Alone or Days of Thunder—the film, in all its plenitude, lacks two crucial ingredients: a reason to care about its plot, and an appealing or even particularly interesting character.

Byrne, never a favorite actor of mine—he tends to make seriousness look like self-seriousness—has too flinty a screen persona to invite identification, and he's a teddy bear compared to John Turturro and Marcia Gay Harden. Interestingly, Frances McDormand, the director's wife, who has an unbilled cameo as a mayor's secretary, desperately wanted to play Verna, but it's hard to understand her ardor for the role. Though Harden gets off some good lines, her character disappears for long stretches of the movie. Even when she's around, she generally serves as a catalyst for the men's behavior rather than a character in her own right. The actress, best known for originating the role of Harper in Angels in America on Broadway, has a piercing stare and a flare for playing severe, disappointed women, but she's a bitter pill to swallow. Compared to such intriguing figures as Fargo's Marge and Barton Fink's Audrey, or even to laugh-riots like Raising Arizona's Edwina and The Big Lebowski's Maud, Verna feels flat and obligatory.

Obviously, the focuses of the Coen's attention in realizing Miller's Crossing were the elaborate sets and the equally elaborate action set-pieces. Dennis Gassner, the genius responsible for Barton Fink's Dante-esque hotel and The Truman Show's seaside utopia, has decorated Miller's Crossing within an inch of its life. The decor is fascinating, but it consistently upstages the actors and the plot. Meanwhile, the Coens pull off some tricky, clever shoot-outs, especially one involving Albert Finney escaping from a burning building (all to the strains of "Danny Boy" on a Victrola), and a pivotal execution scene in a forest packs tremendous punch. Maybe the reason these scenes are so powerful is that they offer rare occasions when we know where we're supposed to be looking. So much has been packed into Miller's Crossing that it's not only easy for a viewer to get flustered and distracted, the movie often seems distracted even from itself.

You get the sense that only Joel and Ethan Coen understand everything that's going on—but, if that's the case, why did they invite us? The film is an undeniable fulcrum point in their careers. Blood Simple and Raising Arizona seem like chamber dramas compared to the panoramic casts and improbable genre-blending of Miller's Crossing and all five films that so far have followed it, including the upcoming O Brother, Where Art Thou?. At the same time, Blood Simple and Raising Arizona offered more satisfying fun and more clever commentary on cinematic conventions by actually getting inside those conventions and propelling themselves forward at a dizzying, invigorating pace. Miller's Crossing, by contrast, feels smart but sluggish, too busy observing and even congratulating itself to move quickly in any direction. The film is a crossroads, more gratifying for the future directions it provided for its creators than for the pleasures it affords its audience. B

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