Saturday, March 21, 2009

Overlooked: Miller's Crossing

Always put one in the brain ...

Strangely, the Coen Brothers' 1990 neo-noir hasn't stuck in too many brains since its release, despite the Coens' rising profile. But just check its user rating on IMDB. It ain't all-time high. But 8.0 is pretty solid (and 0.1 better than the Best Picture winner -- ugh -- from '90).

There's a reason.

Anyone who's read Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (one of my favorites) will notice the parallels between that book and this film. In fact, Miller's Crossing is probably the closest thing to a modern, English-language adaptation of Hammett's genre-defining work* -- it's got the setting (a mob-run town; Albert Finney plays the Irish head honcho here); a cold, witty, rational but not-quite-conscience-free protagonist (Gabriel Byrne); a can-you-really-trust-her? dame (Marcia Gay Harden), and a whole lot of shady characters and angles to be played.

*Incidentally, Harvest contains the phrase "blood simple" ... which later became the title of the Coens' first film.

Maybe that Harvest-Crossing closeness is why Crossing doesn't much find itself alongside films like Fargo in the pantheon of Coen Classics. Like in Harvest, Crossing's humor is black as a Thompson's handle. There's no Jesus the Bowler (NSFW!!!!) here, nor any funny-looking kidnappers. Not to say there isn't a little relief*, just not a ton. Mostly it's a clever, tangled, violent web of crime, and you're never quite sure what the hero's up to until it all comes together in the end.

*A kid. A dog. A dead guy. A hair piece.

The only significant issue here was the casting of Jon Polito as Finney's Italian rival. Polito's a fine comic actor, but plays his Crossing role a little too cartoonishly, compared to the others. It's far from enough to ruin the film, though -- and definitely no reason to skip this overlooked Coen gem.

After all, Rusty Ryan from the Oceans' series didn't.

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