Miller’s Crossing

miller_s_crossing_by_mgelen-d5snuy7With the exceptions of Fargo, Blood Simple and Barton Fink, the films of the Coen brothers exist in a world of complete stylization. Not for a moment can you take them seriously. Not only are you aware that you’re watching a movie, the characters act self-consciously in ways that are required by convention. The problem with this approach is that when it fails (e.g., The Hudsucker Proxy), the results are unwatchable. When it works (e.g., Miller’s Crossing), it is at best only interesting, never moving.

Miller’s Crossing is a gangster movie, kinda, and a bit of a film noir, except that it lacks the trajectory of the former and the landscape of the latter. Gabriel Byrne is Tom Reagan, a gangster worried that his boss (Albert Finney) has made some bad business decisions because of a dame named Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). He’s also worried that Finney will find that he, too, is bedding her. She may be in love with them, and she might be using them to protect her brother (John Turturro), a low-life who has run afoul of Johnny Caspar (John Polito), the other kingpin.

There are complications, double-crosses and extraordinary violence, but the film’s stylized manner does it in. It has the trappings of a gangster film and a film noir, but it lacks the thematic arc of either, and the movie becomes an exercise. A gorgeous, humorous and wonderfully acted exercise, but nothing more than that.

A gangster film needs the gangster to rise, revel, and fall. From beginning to end, Tom Reagan is a midlevel operator. He doesn’t build; he moves through the calculations of the plot without surprise – his machinations are all on the surface. Things move the way we expect, and in a plot based on double-crosses, that doesn’t seem right.

Furthermore, the movie is not a film noir. That would require a hard fall, and a femme fatale to be the catalyst. Verna is the rift between Tom and his boss, but her manipulations are only suspected, never performed. In the final act, she all but disappears, and that’s a place in the film noir where the broad is most important.

So Miller’s Crossing appropriates from these two genres, but it misses the elements that make them powerful. Form exists for a reason: to create a specific source of pleasure and comfort for the viewer while challenging the artist to create something new out of old parts. Bad genre films aren’t an indictment of the generic elements – they are the product of bad artistry.

Miller’s Crossing isn’t a bad genre film, just an incomplete one. By ignoring the building blocks, the picture has no foundation. The movie has a lot of admittedly great scenes, but none of them add up. The ending is unsatisfactory because it happens to people we don’t care about, people who shouldn’t be the focus. This makes the copious violence suspect. Both Fargo and Blood Simple are violent, but only for thematic purposes. Here the stylized manner makes for a cartoonish context in which realistic violence does not fit. The movie offends when it should entertain.

There is a lot of commendable artistry here, but no center. For all the buzz we get, Miller’s Crossing is ultimately flat.

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