'Miller's Crossing': an essay in irony

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

There are two "Miller's Crossings," and I have seen them both.The first is a gangster movie from Mars, remote and incomprehensible, its action transpiring as if glimpsed through the wrong end of the telescope. Lots of pygmies die in an absurdist ritual. It sends you from the theater angry and irritable, feeling as if you've been ripped off.

The other "Miller's Crossing" is the movie most critics are raving about. It's an elegant, cool essay in irony, with a drum-tight plot and vivid performances, an irrepressible example of hip movie-making at its hippest. It's thrilling, astonishing, a kick and a half.

And which "Miller's Crossing" will you get? Well, that depends upon you. Do what your Republican father advised you to do: pay attention, concentrate, work hard. Then you get the second movie.

If you go to goof off, "Miller's Crossing" will take your money and send you home unhappy. And there aren't any refunds. You lose.

Joel and Ethan Coen, of course, astonished the film audience with their spritely "Blood Simple," and then again with "Raising Arizona." The first was a noir burlesque, the second a road movie pastiche; both showed great energy and panache but were self-consciously "fun," engineered to be lightweight.

By contrast, "Miller's Crossing" is dense and solemn; only a few times do the Coens release their vaunted style to cavort upon the screen, as in one brilliantly syncopated Tommygun battle where the sly Albert Finney outsmarts a passel of killers sent to murder him in his bed.

But far more frequently we're locked in a room listening to a lengthy tactical discussion as the Italians consider their options in wiping out the Irish or the Irish consider their options in wiping out the Italians. Almost always we're hearing about the murders of men we don't know or can't remember.

Here's a hint: The key figure is Mink, who, name notwithstanding, is a weasel; he's only in one scene, played by chronic fast-talker Steve Buscemi, but it's on his slender figure the whole story revolves as he turns out to be -- this is typical of the surprises the Coens cook up -- a figure of considerable romantic ardor to two of the powerful figures in the film.

As the movie opens in an unnamed Eastern city in 1929, an Italian gangster named Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) is asking Irish head thug Finney for permission to rub out a Jewish bookmaker named Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) who's tapped into his sources, learned when he's fixed a fight, and gotten his money in earlier in order to get the best odds, driving Johnny's odds up.

But Leo can't OK the rub-out, even if his right-hand man Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) advises him to do so; Bernie is his girl Verna's brother. What Leo doesn't know is that Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) is also sleeping with Tom, which simply gives you some indication of the Shakespearian complexities of the deceit here, the labyrinthes of manipulation.

Thus a gang war begins; and thus Tom deserts his boss, all but destroying the older man who loves him so. Tom, whose slyness Byrne deploys brilliantly, is a curious figure; he's really not from gangster tradition so much as from another, related pulp context. He's a lot more like a private eye than a gangster, the fixer who sifts through the layers of intrigue to find out what's going on.

Perhaps the film is too chi-chi in its clever despair; its astonishing ending coughs up the harsh truth that the one man in all the scheming who was incapable of taking a life out there at Miller's Crossing -- where the gangsters dump their dead -- was only incapable of taking a life when it accomplished nothing. When it's to his own ends, he'll pull the trigger without a flinch.

Unlike Shakespeare, who said that ripeness is all, life is everything, the Coens play a cynic's trick with conventional notions of morality, making you admire not the best of the men but the best of the rats.

'Miller's Crossing'

Starring Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney.

Directed by Joel Coen.

Released by Twentieth Century Fox.

Rated R.

*** 1/2

5/8

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