Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Movie Review: Miller's Crossing (1990)


A gangster drama with neo-noir elements and a mean streak of humour, Miller's Crossing is a character rich story about the sordid but engrossing business of crime.

Mobster Leo O'Bannon (Albert Finney) rules an unnamed city during the Prohibition. He refuses the request of fellow gang boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) to kill bookie Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro). Caspar believes that Bernie is an unethical cheat when it comes to fixed boxing bouts, but Leo is in love with Bernie's sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) and wants to maintain the peace. Leo's second in command Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is unsuccessful arguing that liquidating Bernie is a cheap price to pay in order to avoid a conflict with Caspar.

What Leo does not know is that Tom, who is saddled with gambling debts, is also carrying on a steamy affair with Verna. Leo does suspect Verna enough to have her followed, but things start to get complicated when the tail shows up dead in an alley. Meanwhile Caspar is fed up with taking orders from Leo and a full-fledged violent turf war erupts between the two. Tom and Leo have a public falling out, and with Caspar appearing to gain the upper hand in the fight to control the underworld, Tom joins Caspar's inner circle.

Directed by Joel Coen and written by his brother Ethan, Miller's Crossing builds slowly but surely to some magnificent peaks of tension and drama in the criminal world. Deploying a measured pace, grim aesthetics and a narrative that smoothly swerves with divided loyalties and suspect alliances, the film works both as a salute to the genre and a memorably unique story.

Inspired by the novels of Dashiell Hammett, the canon of gangster films and sharing some man-in-the-middle story principles with the likes of A Fistful Of Dollars, the Coens create a matter-of-fact world where the mobsters own the law and the politicians, and the prize at the heart of the struggle for power is nothing less than economic control of an entire city. The film does not question the reasons behind this reality; with a combination of jarring violence and sharp wit, Miller's Crossing proceeds to reveal the cunning, conspiracies and collusion required for survival and success in the world of mob rule.

Leo and Caspar will settle their conflict with bullets rather than votes; Tom just has to find a way to navigate and manipulate the dirty war without losing his head, no easy task when he is sleeping with the boss's girl. A black fedora becomes a symbol for loss and death, while a cold blooded crime in the titular forest clearing provides a neat twist and a reminder for Tom that there is a price for everything, but sometimes others pay to play. Verna is a classic woman desired by many but truly attainable by probably none, and her magnetism tugs at the raging egos to make every dangerous situation worse.

Miller's Crossing is punctuated by manic action scenes, ranging in scale from raids and battles involving hordes of cops and gangsters exchanging hot lead from blazing Tommy guns, to quiet one-on-one showdowns prolonged to reveal the fragility of life. Tom's one big advantage is that he is smarter than everybody around him, and particularly wise enough to stand close to power but not cling onto it. In a world gone crazy with killings, Tom slices through the drama using brains instead of brawn. Reluctant to use a gun, he also counts on the incompetence of the goons supposedly running the show to wriggle out of tight spots.

Gabriel Byrne carries the role with requisite intensity, an intelligent man working overtime to design outcomes in a shifting landscape. Albert Finney, Jon Polito and John Turturro humanize a trio of enduring gangsters circling each other looking for the duplicitous kill. Marcia Gay Harden pouts her way through the role of Verna, fully understanding her influence but not feeling any better for it. A woman in a man's world gone mad has every reason to want to land on the winning side of a merciless conflict.






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