The latest - and far from the last - gangster saga of 1990 is "Miller's Crossing," a textbook case of a polished screenplay and sharp-eyed direction being almost too well-crafted. That is, there is an overriding, constant sense that we're watching a movie, not life.
A silly complaint, you say? After all, movies are movies. They are not life. But the best movie can spirit the audience away into its own definition of reality."Miller's Crossing," however, like too many films today, seems to spring from and reflect other, earlier movies - not life. In this case, an uneasy blend of the earliest gangster pictures and the film noir style that followed in the 1940s.
And yet, somehow, it works.
Despite all the obvious trappings, "Miller's Crossing" is an amazingly entertaining film, loaded with zesty dialogue, gorgeously staged sequences and a bevy of wild characters. Not that you care for any of these people, mind you, but they certainly are wild.
The story is rich and complex, but never too complicated, about Irish criminals who are running the town - an anonymous American metropolis in 1929 - and a rising group of Italian mobsters who are tired of playing second fiddle.
The town boss is Leo (Albert Finney), who rules with an iron fist. But he may be going soft, as we see immediately in the opening scene.
Leo is approached by Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), who wants to rub out a mug named Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro). But Leo won't allow it since he's in love with Bernie's sister, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden).
His decision is bound to lead to a nasty feud between the two crime lords that could ultimately tear the town apart as violence escalates. This is the warning offered by Leo's right-hand man, and the film's central character, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne).
Unbeknownst to Leo, Tom is having an affair with Verna, but Tom doesn't let that get in the way of advising Leo to give Bernie up. It's the only way to avert the inevitable "bad business." But Leo is too stuck on Verna to follow Tom's advice.
Eventually, Tom's secret will come out and he will become an outcast, his loyalty to Leo to be tested by an offer from Caspar. On other hand Tom may have no loyalty to anyone but himself.
Not that any of this matters much.
In "Miller's Crossing," plot isn't nearly as important as style, and this picture is dripping with style. Written, produced and directed by the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, who also gave us the film noir "Blood Simple" and the zany farce "Raising Arizona," this is a much less original effort in terms of story, yet it is as singular a vision as their other films.
The Coens are artists whose march is definitely to the beat of a different drum, but "Miller's Crossing," which is very dark, is also often very funny. It may not be for all tastes, but if you like your comedy wicked and witty and your style elegant, this may be the picture for you.
The performances are all very good, the most startling being John Turturro's flamboyant turn as Bernie. The already famous moment, where he begs for his life in the wooded title area, is the killer, but his character wears many colors and Turturro brings each out brilliantly.
It's unfortunate, in terms of audience acceptance, that there is no one to like in this film. Tom Reagan comes closest, a distant cousin of the film noir smart-aleck who gets beat up repeatedly in such classics of the genre as "The Maltese Falcon." Like Bogart's Sam Spade, Byrne's Tom Reagan doesn't let his emotions get in the way of doing what he feels needs to be done, but their motivations couldn't be more disparate.
The other characters are broadly drawn, some funny, some tragic, but what makes the film work is that sense of style - the way these people talk to each other ("It's the kiss-off"; "What's the rumpus?"), the film's look, the sinister double-crosses and the bewildering and bewitching story twists.
"Miller's Crossing" is rated R for some gruesome violence (though probably not as rough as "GoodFellas"), just a few profanities and implied sex.