1990’s Miller’s Crossing was the third film made by celebrated filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. It is a gangster movie set in an unnamed corrupt U.S. city (filmed in New Orleans) during the Prohibition era. It’s shot in the style of 1930s or 1940s film noir. It has the feel of being maybe 75% a serious movie of that genre, and 25% a parody of a movie of that genre.
The fact that it would have that kind of winking, semi-serious/semi-spoof style to it is not surprising for a Coen brothers movie, but for me it didn’t work particularly well. A good Coen brothers movie has either an intelligent, compelling story line, some very sharp absurdist humor, or, in the case of a masterpiece like Fargo, plenty of both. I can’t say that was true of this one, though.
The story-lifted in large part from other books and movies, including The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett-concerns a war between crime bosses Leo (Albert Finney) and Johnny (Jon Polito), in part over the fate of crooked bookie Bernie (John Turturro). Stuck in the middle is the film’s protagonist, Leo’s long time assistant Tom (Gabriel Byrne), whose loyalties are in question.
The film features plenty of double crosses, shifting alliances, shootouts, etc. And it’s complex and skillfully put together and fast-paced enough that for the first half or so, my reaction was that while I’ve not loving the movie, at least it’s holding my interest. The acting is fine, with Finney turning in a particularly solid effort, and Turturro proving entertainingly slimy. But gradually I tired of it, as it just seemed to be more and more of the same type of scene and dialogue.
And while there’s a little black humor here and there, it’s not as if the film succeeds as a humorous parody. The characters have their little idiosyncrasies, and there’s some occasional witty dialogue, but that’s about it as far as humor.
It’s very good in terms of creating the look and feel of a movie of the film noir gangster genre. I think if you were to go through it in detail and examine the speech patterns, the wardrobes, the camera angles for the action scenes, the pacing, etc., you’d probably find they were right on the money with most of that stuff.
To me, it’s just too much the kind of movie film school geniuses make for each other. Something an insider can spot as being a very well-crafted homage to a popular film genre of the past. But not so much so as to be uncool; it also functions as camp. So highbrow folks can show they sort of appreciate that kind of movie, but also laugh at it at the same time.
I’ve never much cared for that approach. For you can play the parody card to block just about any criticism. I mean, mostly it’s a straight gangster film, but if you say, “Oh, people don’t really talk like that,” or “That’s not a believable coincidence that those people would burst through the door with guns blazing right when the hero is about to meet his demise,” or “It’s kind of creepy that that girl is responding favorably to that guy being a macho jerk,” folks would roll their eyes at your naivete at not realizing the movie isn’t really depicting those things, but poking fun at a past genre of movies that depicted things that way.
So for me there is a certain emptiness at the heart of the movie. It didn’t teach me anything, provoke a lot of thought about things that matter, stir up deep emotions, give me a lot of big laughs, etc. It is a technically well done movie that held my interest moderately well, especially for the first half or so, but ultimately struck me as pointless and too self-consciously clever.