A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 402 – Miller’s Crossing

Miller’s Crossing – April 6th, 2011

I should not have watched this tonight. I’m having a very low energy evening after a tiring day and I should have taken the easy way out and watched something silly and simple and gentle on the brain. But I didn’t. Andy suggested this and I said sure and I should have known better because it’s the Coen brothers and they don’t do silly and simple and gentle on the brain. Okay, they do silly, but their version of silly usually involves screaming and people getting killed. But this isn’t silly. It’s the Coens’ version of a noir gangster flick and there is indeed screaming and people do indeed get killed. It’s also not simple or gentle on the brain. It’s got a twisty plot full of characters who don’t do much explaining. At one point I had to stop the movie and go over the set-up with Andy to make sure I had it right. And I didn’t. Like I said, low energy tonight.

When the movie begins we meet a number of sketchy characters. And I don’t mean that they’re not well developed. I mean they’re well developed to be sketchy. We’re talking gangsters and hit men and thugs and bookies and gamblers and snitches. We meet Johnny Caspar and Leo, two of the top level mob bosses in town. We meet their guys and find out that there’s some sort of rotten deal going on with fixed fights and someone leaking the fix and Leo’s protecting that someone (Bernie) and Johnny wants him dealt with but Leo won’t. Backing Leo up is Tom. And Tom? Tom is the one to watch. The movie revolves around Tom. He’s the central figure in a major battle between two rival mobs as they duke it out for control of the city. Tom’s a tricky one to figure out until you realize he’s really quite simple.

Tom is a survivor. Throughout the movie you see Tom cross and double cross and triple cross everyone. He sides with Leo, he fights with Leo, he goes over to Johnny, he calls the police on both sides and plays them like pianos. But he’s also always getting himself beat up. If he planned it all, it seems like a lot of it is awfully sloppy. But I don’t believe he planned it all. I believe that he is a clever man who can read a situation and go with whatever will hopefully get him out. When the situation changes, he changes his plan to suit. It’s fascinating for me to watch and to be honest, he reminds me of a character I very much enjoy, so once I realized what he was doing, I enjoyed watching him a lot more.

And it was tough going for a while there. The Coens like to present you with a number of unlikable or only semi-likable characters and let you struggle to pick out who you’re going to care about. But in a movie like this you really shouldn’t care about anyone. Don’t get attached, because they’re all bad guys, even Verna, Leo’s girlfriend (whom Tom is sleeping with). So I think it’s better to not care about these people. Instead look for things to find interesting about them. I don’t really care about Tom as a person. But do I want to see him survive the movie? Yes. Because I wanted to see how he’d manage it.

As the movie goes on, with Tom getting himself in deeper and deeper and people getting killed and people disappearing, it starts to look like no one’s going to make it out alive. Everyone’s got it in for everyone else and it’s going to come down to who gets to fire first. I really wish I’d been more on top of my game tonight so I could have appreciated the twists and turns a little better. What I did appreciate were the performances. I can honestly say I really truly loved Gabriel Byrne as Tom. Watching him work through each new development became my reason for continuing to pay attention to the movie. And I have to give some serious credit to Albert Finney as Leo and J.E. Freeman as Eddie Dane, one of Johnny’s thugs. Jon Polito and John Turturro were both good as Johnny and Bernie, respectively, but to be honest I don’t think either had to stretch much for the roles they were given. I wish there’d been more of a role for Marcia Gay Harden as Verna, but I wasn’t shocked that there wasn’t. Still, she did well with what she had.

Halfway through this movie I wasn’t enjoying it terribly much. I could acknowledge that it was pretty and that the score was bizarrely light (it’s not the minor key sort of sound you expect) and that the combination of the visuals and score and performances made for a nicely put together movie. But I wasn’t having fun watching it. And then, well, I latched onto Tom and that was all it took. Maybe on another day I’d feel differently about it and if that sort of character doesn’t do it for you then, well, I can’t be of much help. It did it for me. Not my favorite Coen brothers movie, but it does have a Coen brothers character who’s now high on my list.

April 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Miller’s Crossing

April 6, 2011

Miller’s Crossing

It has been years and years since I saw this movie. My recollection is that I saw it at my grandparents’ house on premium cable back when cable was a new and revolutionary thing for me. I had seen Raising Arizona and I had seen the previews for this movie and I was curious to see what kind of gangland mobster movie the creators of that madcap comedy had cooked up. I would say this is the most linear and “normal” movie I can think of in the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre. It’s got an insanely intricate plot with a lot of characters to keep track of. It’s a twisted tale of double and triple crosses and if you don’t pay careful attention you’ll miss what’s going on.

Amanda has observed in the past when we watched Coen Brothers movies that they usually involve innocent people getting hurt. Even the comedies. This movie bucks that trend in that it doesn’t involve any innocent people. It’s a gritty tale of hardened gangsters at war in prohibition era Chicago and even the honest ones are cold hearted killers. Our protagonist (I hesitate to use the word “hero”) is the most duplicitous and heartless of them all.

Part of what makes this movie what it is is that we the audience are not given much help figuring out who all the characters are and what their various motivations are. We’re thrown right into things and have to quickly figure things out as they’re happening. I enjoy this sort of thing because I like having to figure a world out. Amanda was not feeling too sharp tonight (and I had the advantage of having had the day off) so early on we paused the movie to see if I could summarise just who was who and what was going on. Here is roughly what we figured out:

There are two mob bosses here. There’s the irritating and dangerously insecure Johnny Caspar. He is upset because the odds on a series of rigged fights he’s been betting on are going down. As soon as he places a bet somebody is leaking the fact that the fix is in and all kinds of other people are profiting from the hard work he has done rigging the fights. (Interestingly this same situation was involved in the opening for Lucky Number Sleven, but that’s an entirely different film.) At the start of the movie Johnny and his taciturn right hand man Eddie Dane have come to visit rival mob boss Leo because Johnny wants, in a show of fairness and to avoid a gang war, to warn Leo that Johnny intends to kill the bookie Bernie Bernbaum who he believes is responsible for the leak. Leo is unwilling to simply give up Bernie though. He says it’s because Bernie is paying him protection money, but Leo’s lieutenant Tom Regan knows the real reason. Leo has been spending a lot of time recently with Bernie’s sister Verna.

Now things get complicated. What Leo doesn’t know is that Tom is sleeping with Verna. Things get complicated, especially for Tom, because in order to protect Velma Leo has put a tail on her. That tail (a guy with a toupee called “The Rug”) gets shot in an alleyway and everything starts to go to hell. Leo assumes that Caspar had the tail killed. Tom thinks it was probably Verna, who like Tom himself is always playing the angles and does whatever she can to help herself and her brother. Leo sends the local police, who are in his pocket, on a raid of one of Caspar’s clubs and Caspar retaliates by sending a hit squad to kill Leo. It’s war.

There’s also some kind of love triangle going on between Dane, another bookie named Mink, and Bernie. Sort of the mirror of the one between Leo, Verna and Tom. Dane is protecting Mink from Caspar, and doesn’t know that Mink and Bernie are an item. Bernie is playing his own games – he’s just a guy who can’t resist using any advantage that comes in his direction, be it a tip about a fight or some kind of leverage he can use to improve his station.

Throughout the movie we follow Tom. He’s the one guy who seems most of the time to know what’s going on. He understands the crooked minds of the people around him and isn’t above manipulating them if he can. I would not exactly say that he is a sympathetic character. He’s just a smart guy trying to stay afloat in a world of double dealings and violence. He’s not particularly nice to Verna, although he does seem to have some qualms about killing her brother. About the only good thing that can be said about him is that he steadfastly refuses to accept anybody else’s help settling his massive gambling debts. (He’s not particularly good at picking horses it would appear.)

This movie’s problem is that it doesn’t really have anybody to root for. Tom is the protagonist, but he’s a slimy bastard a lot of the time. His friend Leo is a good enough guy for a crime boss, and you do kind of feel bad when they have a falling out over Verna, but he’s not the focus of the movie. The bloodthirsty and unstoppable Dane is probably the most honest and straight shooting character in the film, but he’s a brutal bastard who can only afford to be honest because he can beat the hell out of everybody around him. Verna herself is hard to figure. Maybe Tom is right and she’s just playing the angles, and it is certainly hard to figure out why she stays with Tom when he’s such a bastard to her, but maybe she actually cares about him. Her brother Bernie, the source of all the problems, seems like a nice enough guy at first, but ultimately is proven to be perhaps the most manipulative and heartless character in the whole film. So although I enjoy going along for the ride here and I like all the twists and turns I don’t find myself very heavily invested in how things turn out.

It’s too bad I can’t care more about the movie too, because it is a very polished and well put together film. It doesn’t have a very Coen Brothers feel to it most of the time (except for one fairly strange scene near the end of the movie.) It doesn’t rely on cool camera tricks or brilliant writing, although it has examples of both. The shot of a hat blowing through the woods behind the opening title is brilliant, and must have been hell for the focus puller operating the camera as the hat drifts further and further into the distance. Mink’s speech to Tom in Leo’s club is a great example of Coen Brothers dialog combined with one of their favorite actors (Steve Buscemi.) Indeed the entire cast is fantastic, from other Coen Brothers favorites like John Turturro to the desperate but always completely cool portrayal of Tom by Gabriel Byrne.

I really wish I could like this movie more. It’s gorgeously shot, well acted, and well written. It’s a cool and convoluted plot and I love seeing characters with conflicting interests thrown together like this. I just don’t really care about any of these people, which decreases the impact of the movie for me. If I want a hard boiled noir detective story created by the Coen Brothers I’m much more likely to turn to No Country for Old Men. Or Blood Simple. Or The Big Lebowski for that matter.

April 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment