So far, the most disappointing thing about following The Coen Brothers' filmography in chronological order has been realizing how little I actually have to say about their early work. Their versatility is undoubtedly impressive - few filmmakers would follow a somber film noir like Blood Simple (1984) with a cartoonish action-comedy like Raising Arizona (1987), and no one could've predicted that their third film would be a period gangster drama. Miller's Crossing (1990) finds The Coens exploring an entirely new setting, with their most complicated script and largest ensemble cast to this point. But the surface ambition can only do so much to cover up The Coen Brothers' lack of development as artists. They are moving around instead of moving forward.
If the point of view of Blood Simple and Raising Arizona is "people are stupid," then the worldview expressed in Miller's Crossing is "people are corrupt." Prohibition-era mobster Gabriel Byrne is betraying his boss Albert Finney both by sleeping with the older man's mistress, Marcia Gay Harden, and by working with a rival crime lord played by Jon Polito. Harden's brother, John Turturro, is deep in gambling debt to Polito, who wants Finney's gang to wipe Turturro out. After a series of complications, Byrne - who is more of a backstage politician than a killer - is ordered to eliminate Turturro himself. Deep in the woods where the execution is supposed to take place, Byrne offers Turturro an ultimatum - he will fake the shooting as long as Turturro leaves town and is never heard from again. But Turturro never leaves town, and instead attempts to blackmail Byrne into killing Polito.
For this story to work dramatically, viewers need to be invested in Byrne's increasingly frustrated attempts to keep the peace between the other characters. The arc of the narrative is Byrne gradually losing his will to hold his world together, but it doesn't register emotionally because the character is a cipher who never loses his cool even under the most stressful circumstances. It also doesn't work because none of the characters are well-rounded enough to be interesting, which is a recurring problem in The Coen Brothers' work. In this case it isn't just a problem of the filmmakers using thinly-defined stock characters, but of the relationships between those characters seeming implausible. There is no onscreen indication of why Byrne and Harden are attracted to each other, or why Byrne and Finney are supposed to have such a close partnership, so there is no weight to these relationships falling apart. It doesn't help that a few of the key roles are badly miscast - Harden is a fine actress, but she is totally unconvincing as a femme fatale. Worse still, some of the characters don't make a lot of sense. It's hard to believe that Finney could be running a city yet be totally clueless about an affair going on right under his nose. Turturro is the only cast member who appears completely comfortable in his over-the-top performance, yet his character is depicted as such a creep that it seems that The Coens think he deserves to be murdered.
Fortunately, The Coens' strengths are on hand as well as their weaknesses. They once again manage to create a distinct, rich atmosphere, with the lush production designs immaculately captured by recurring cinematographer Barry Sonennfeld, who delivers his most handsome work to date here. The dialogue is memorably quirky ("Last time we jawed, you gave me the high hat") and smoothly delivered by the talented cast. The few brief action scenes are visceral and inventively staged in a way that only Coen Brothers scenes are, particularly a home invasion sequence that ends in a ridiculous blaze of tommy gun fire, and a scene where Byrne beats Turturro to the bottom floor of his building by jumping out of his window and running back in through the door. But The Coens have known where to put the camera and how to film dazzling setpieces since the beginning. They have a harder time supplying a story with characters we can care about or deep thoughts that stick with us after the credits roll.
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