So I decided to continue my ’80s series into the ’90s. Whaddaya want, to fight about it? More reviews for me, more reviews for you. Everybody’s happy! Plus the ’80s didn’t necessarily end with the ’80s, if you know what I mean. The spirit of the ’80s was transformed, sure, but we see the influence of the decade’s films today. In the first few years, for instance, we see the emergence of a true cinematic two-headed giant, taking the genre-riffery that so populated the late ’80s and elevating it to more rigorous art with an analytic bent, combining the best of late ’80s playfulness with ’90s indie intellectualism. After all, someone had to pave the way for the soon-diluted hellish quirk fest that would be the late ’90s and early 2000s. After all, even the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
When Miller’s Crossing was released, the Coen Brothers were an unknown quantity still frolicking about in their wild years. They’d released one pitch-black neo-noir thriller and a second film its polar opposite, a light, frothy screwball comedy. The only thing the two films shared, their directors’ sure-hands aside, was a love for and desire to explore the heart of classic cinema. This same dogged spirit permeates Miller’s Crossing, their third film, and perhaps the one that best captures the spirit of what the Coens’ would become. Certainly, it’s the one that would pave the way most directly for Fargo, still probably their most famous film, if not their best. It is snarky, playful, inebriated yet sharp as a tack, smarmy, deconstructed and reconstructed, loopy, acute, and heady in the most amusing possible way. Calling it a comedy feels weird, but it’s undeniably funny; likewise, while it isn’t a “drama,” it deals with serious themes and finds itself in the company of their most textured films. The only sure thing you could call it – a gangster picture (and by god, this is not a movie, or a film, but a picture) – doesn’t even hold up under close analysis. It’s an unclassifiable beast of a project, an art film in genre clothing, but it wears its weight like air.
On the surface, Miller’s Crossing is a quintessential example of everything the Coen Brothers do well: nutty characters, funny dialogue, impeccable set design, pitch-perfect tone, contorted tension, pungent humor, and discordant atmosphere. While many of their films mix and match these qualities with (mostly) success, Miller’s Crossing beats out even fan-favorite Fargo by a long shot as a showcase for their ability to mix all the elements of their silken, quirky comedies and their darker, more sinister films to create a uniquely combustible whole, a weave of tones and textures that moves it steadily but curiously to the finish-line in a way that not only satisfies but perplexes and confounds expectation. With a beautiful look and a winning combination of delightfully giddy dialogue and severely neurotic characters, not to mention some of John Turturro’s and Gabriel Byrne’s best work, the film is a literate consideration of the gangster pics the directors likely grew up on, less a satire of them than a meditation on their aura.
Now, that’s the surface level, but that itself can only take us so far into how mesmerizing and befuddling Miller’s Crossing truly is. Because it’s the Coens’ at their hungriest and most devouring, it’s only below where things get most interesting. Yes, the film pokes fun at the gangster genre, but only in the driest of ways. It doesn’t so much joke about the genre as recreate it with an eye for its artificiality. In the sets, the verve, the sheer sweat of the whole thing, and the little details of the way characters glance and perspire at each other, the picture embodies a cartoon version of the artifice that undergirded the old Saturday morning gangster pics of old. This itself makes the film not so much a comedy as a straight-faced re-reading of noir that distorts the genre’s sense of self well past the surface-level look and sound of the genre to discover its nightmares.
Yet still there’s more. Miller’s Crossing does not merely emulate and expand upon a certain generic fakeness for the genre it emulates, but it critiques the characters within that genre in decidedly intellectual ways, somewhat more like an academic essay film on the subject of a gangster picture. It’s easy to reduce the film to a one-note “it’s all fake” perspective, a cheery take of cinematic artifice, but that is not the argument the Coens put forward in the often grave seriousness with which they take the material. Miller’s Crossing isn’t simply a movie about the artificiality of gangster pictures, but about how in this artifice gangster pictures discovered a human truth about the way people construct their lives around the movies, how they think in movies, and how they struggle to find dreams and nightmares to live through when society casts them in roles they don’t fully understand. For Miller’s Crossing is a movie about people trying to construct images of their selves, but it reveals this less by theorizing it in dialogue than by being itself, as a film, the image these people aspire to. It forces its characters into its boxes and catches them with their pants down when they can’t quite match the film’s aspirations for them.
Thus, there are lots of little details about how vicious and horrid the real world is that suggest the film breaking down around the seems, its aesthetic scaffolding threatening to collapse around it, revealing ungovernable human reality underneath. The nasty, fleshy way a character falls through a stairwell banister impossibly, as though he had been positioned to be there for effect, is the film’s most famous, and the one everybody mentions, but that is merely the tip of the iceberg. As a work of construction, it’s hardly flawless in its messy psychological rhythms, but that is precisely the point: the mind is a messy place, and the film’s exploration of film genre as both a work of the mind and of physical, external space and time can’t but be messy to convey this. This is never more-so true than in its often nightmarish cinematography by Coen Brothers acolyte Barry Sonnenfeld, here on his best behavior exploring the look(s) of cinema(s) past and connecting the simultaneously shadowy/muggy look of noir with the complications and machinations of the human mind in free-fall descent, battling with controlled chaos. If nothing else, Miller’s Crossing is a downright beautiful film, but its style and subject are in perfect unison.
It’s a downright befuddling film, worried and angry and joyous in equal measure. Its multifaceted view of the gangster picture struts boastful strides on the surface and is always double-dealing underneath. It’s an undercover agent with a constant fear of someone following behind in its footsteps, a nervously cheerful take on the gangster identity. It’s a sprightly, raging poison-pen love letter in one analysis, a cadaverous dissection of human frailty in another. It’s a gangster pic with entirely acquiescent characters, most of all its main man who finds himself in a warring gangster town like The Man With No Name. Only, instead of penetrating the conflict by playing all sides, he stands around and wallows in the walls coming down on him from all sides, making a business out of pretending he has something going on under his noggin. It’s a haunted film, the kind of work that reveals new layers with each viewing. And it does not leave your side.