A handsome Criterion re-release gives new life to the masterful third film from the Coen Brothers
One benefit of coming up in the 90’s was that Hollywood was willing to let the outsider types make the kinds of films that they wanted to make, especially if they built prestige with at Cannes and at the Oscars. At this point it’s safe to say that the Coen Brothers are generally considered Great with a capital-G, so it was surprising that Miller’s Crossing, which Criterion recently gave a handsome new release, was only their third film, premiering in 1990. And the seductively complex meditation on noir didn’t even make its money back, possibly because the release date put it in competition with Goodfellas, Scorsese’s magnum opus.
The film’s Criterion canonization is a welcome nod to the film’s true value as a story, and not just another gangster pastiche. Not that the Coens have ever been afraid of doing genre for genre’s sake: they’ve tried their hand at Westerns, screwball comedies, musicals, and noir. In the 90’s, some critics tended to make a big stink over how postmodern it all was, accusing the Coens of snarkily tossing off mere pastiches of overplayed classic plots.
This is a misguided gripe. Genre is a perfectly legitimate thing to work within—sometimes constraints are good for artists—and Godard was absolutely right to say that “it’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to” that matters. In their best work, the Coens use genre as a way to genuinely explore compelling characters and themes, with a snazzy verbal flair and a jaundiced, knowing eye for the ultimate absurdity of existence. Everything might be meaningless in the end, but the Coens don’t let that ruin their chance to tell a story.
Miller’s Crossing is a stately tale about the incompatibility of power and loyalty by way of Irish gangsters doing their mobster thing amid an elegantly ambiguous twenties-era city. They shot Miller’s Crossing in New Orleans, with the elegantly ominous crescent city seldom looking better on screen. Gabriel Byrne plays Tom, the brooding consigliere to Albert Finney’s mob boss Leo, who endures all the trials and tribulations of your typical noir hero. Tom plots his intricate manipulations to try and get the better of all the bozos and palookas around him while never failing to crack wise, chainsmoke, slug good whiskey, and get pummeled for his trouble.
Tom is a resolutely quiet man trying to hide his seething conscience underneath a great looking hat. Byrne’s green eyes suggest a lifelong solitude. Yet he’s got a soft spot for Verna, a dame as hard as rock candy, superbly played by Marcia Gay Harden, who might as well have just slinked into the film from some old celluloid amid a cloud of Lucky Strike smoke. Unfortunately, Verna’s surreptitiously stepping out on her main squeeze while sticking up for her creepily amoral brother, played with sniveling aplomb by the great John Turturro. And there are eccentric minor characters galore, with a motormouthed Steve Buscemi possibly taking the cake.
The Coens had almost fully formed their sensibility this early in their career. There combine colorful knack for slangy dialogue (“what’s the rumpus,” “take your flunky and dangle,” “I’m sick of gettin’ the high hat!”) with their precise cinematic technique (the disc’s excellent bonus features explain how thoroughly they planned out every shot) topped off with double shots of extreme violence and pervading, almost metaphysical cynicism. Glenn Kenny’s superb essay highlights what makes the film unique. The Coens love a good gag, verbal or situational. They relish quirky period details and luminous cinematography while let never letting the audience forget the doom just around the bend.
This has caused some critics to mistakenly assume that they dole out snark for snark’s sake. Film scholar Joseph McBride argues with the Coen’s critics point by point in his too-slim new book The Whole Durn Human Comedy: The World According to the Coen Brothers. Using quotes from rare interviews with the duo and a close reading of the films, McBride convincingly shows that the Coens aren’t heartless wiseasses so much as prone to endlessly mocking the rigged game of the human condition. For some reason Miller’s Crossing turns him off. He finds it“pretentious,” which is unfortunate. Yet McBride does make the crucial point: that the Coens certainly do have a sarcastic vibe, which would be hard to deny, but that’s by no means the only color in their palette.
Miller’s Crossing has a legitimate claim to being one of their best films because even though Tom isn’t particularly heroic or demonstrative, we do see that he has a churning moral anguish beneath his stoic exterior, which is partially a credit to Byrne’s acting chops. The Coens don’t necessarily reward the characters for being good in their Coen’s world, which is filled with fast-talking con men and full of bent freaks, but at their best they pay tribute to the people who keep it together in their own way amid the convoluted plot twists and the relentless pressure of the world’s evil.
The two best examples of this are two amusingly different character types: Frances MacDormand’s Marge Gunderson in Fargo and Jeff Bridges’s Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski in The Big Lebowski. Margie is a pregnant cop, surrounded by venality and incompetence wherever she goes. The movie works because even though she has the memorably quirky accent and unshakeable Midwestern decency, the Coens make it very clear that Margie is nobody’s fool. Her hard work, decency, and competence are actually assets for her character, not weaknesses or punch lines, which help her to do good things in a treacherous world.
In contrast, The Dude is by no means competent or hard working. But as he says, “that’s just your opinion, man.” Goofoff that he is, The Dude truly is a good dude—he patiently deals with his weirdo friends and those spastic emasculating nihilists with a good-humored tolerance. No matter what happens, he keeps his cool. Maybe people obsess and quote the movie endlessly because even if he’s a lazy burnout The Dude is actually an example of how to live a pretty decent life. He moseys around the bowling alley, breezing through life’s strikes and gutters in stride, “taking it easy for all us sinners.” One could easily do worse.
It wasn’t until 1996’s Fargo, a critical and box-office success that won at Cannes and at the Oscars, that those very dark and very funny Jewish Minnesotans finally became household names. Their ability to easily toggle between bleakness and zaniness, alternating from film to film and often mixing both elements within the same storyline, keeps their films interesting and fresh. You’re not ripping off anyone’s source material if you can put your own spin on it. Style will redeem you as long as you bring more to the picture than style alone.
At one point Tom describes a dream where he was walking through a forest (probably not unlike the eponymous one where fates are decided) and the wind suddenly blew his hat off. When Verna asks if he chased it and if it turned into something wonderful, he brusquely tells her no, that it was just a hat. Then he murmurs that there’s “nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat.” And then he gets up and leaves the frame, leaving us to ponder that little Zen koan for moment. Or maybe we don’t even need to; after all, sometimes a hat really is just a hat. Either way, the Coens get us to pay attention. Whether that crisp black fedora actually means anything significant or not, there’s no question that he wears it well.