Brothers in cinematic crime

October 19, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

The filmmaker Joelnethan Coen is one of the more particular examples of what is an already particular breed. For one thing, he comes with two bodies.

One of the bodies is called "Ethan" and it is 33 years old; the other is called "Joel" and it is 35 years old. But for all intents and purposes, Joelnethan Coen is one man, one sensibility, one style. More than collaborators, the two separate bodies are an entity: A sentence that begins in one mouth will almost certainly reach its conclusion in the other, all verbs and subjects in perfect agreement. If there is inter-being communication it is in the coded language of brothers, impenetrable to alien ears.

Now Joelnethan Coen has released his third film, "Miller's Crossing," a gangster melodrama of dizzying complexity and irony that won the coveted opening night slot at the New York Film Festival and has gathered an extraordinary collection of raves.

Yet Joelnethan seems unmoved. Sitting in a New York banquet hall, he appears in the form of two extremely mild mannered young men, one with longish hair, the other with shortish, but both sporting a slack, passive expression, and almost no anxiety or hostility or attitude of any sort. In fact they seem like examples of what a writer in the current Spy magazine has identified as naif culture, the projection, by highly successful people at the highest rungs of professional show biz, of attitudes of infantility and naivity and complete feckless guilelessness.

So you ask someone -- Marcia Gay Hardin, who has the big female part in "Miller's Crossing" -- if they're really like that? They can't be that undynamic on the set, can they?

"Yes," she says. "They're like that. All the time."

And Gabriel Byrne, the Irish actor whom they may elevate to major star status as the anti-hero Tom Reagan in the film, says, "It's like making a movie in your garden with the guys down the road. Modest, unassuming, they just love to make movies. There's no bull---- about them."

Ask Joelnethan a question, however, and you're not likely to encounter so incisive an opinion.

"I don't--" begins Joel.

"--know," completes Ethan.

The question was about the surprising upswing in gangster movies all of a sudden.

"We saw 'GoodFellas,' " says Joel, or maybe Ethan, "and although it was like our film because it was a gangster film, it was so different in so many other ways." But as to whys, they only have a single, naif answer:

"I don't--" says Ethan.

"--know," says Joel.

As a tandem, they specialize in the ellipsis, as if, even in bantering with the press, they're communicating in a secret language of brothers, full of significant pauses, sighs, innocuous asides. Interviewing them is like talking to two Daryl Hannahs.

"There's something attractive about an identifiable genre," says Ethan, or maybe Joel. "Things are associated with it that create a resonance that we like -- the long coats, the tommyguns."

It turns out that the movie began entirely as an image, not a story.

"Gangsters in a non-urban setting," says Ethan, "that was the first thing. That's where our woods came from. The idea of classic gangsters in a woodland setting, that was the starting point."

"We write," says Joel, "then write, then back up, write, back up. At some point or other it all comes together."

The brother act is not unprecedented in moviemaking. For example, two Italian brothers, Paolo and Bertrand Taviani have made a series of brilliant movies sharing directoral credits.

As far as Joel and Ethan are concerned, "We both really do everything. The credits are pretty arbitrary."

For the sake of clarity, Joel, the elder, takes the directing credit; Ethan takes the producing credit, and they both take a writing credit.

A famous anecdote about them reveals their working practices.

"Joel," says Ethan, after a take in which the actors have performed substandardly.

"I'll tell them," says Joel.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.