Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Twenty-Nine

Top5090s29

#29 — Miller’s Crossing (Joel Coen (and Ethan Coen), 1990)
Joel and Ethan Coen are marvelous visual artists. They conceive of extraordinary set pieces and understand better than most of their peers how a perfectly executed sight gag or sly storytelling detail can elevate a film, veritably ratifying its existence as a film, testifying to the reason its story needed to be presented cinematically instead of on the printed page or a comparative diminutive television screen. Movies by the Coen brothers are invariably marked by memorable feasts for the eyes, especially their earliest offerings when they pushed against staid practices, clearly energized by just having the opportunity to explore and experiment and see what the camera could do. All this is true of Miller’s Crossing–only their third film–but I think it provides even stronger evidence of the aspect of the Coens’ creative approach that I value most: their absolute adoration of language.

Miller’s Crossing is a movie about gangsters. These aren’t the sort of operatic, quasi-tragic figures popularized by Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films. These are working class brutes, tough guys doing their job and retrieving their knocked off fedoras from the pavement afterward. There’s an appealing earthiness to the characters here, and yet they also speak with a wonderfully stylized patter that tracks like an encyclopedia of film noir jargon and phrasing. In the meticulous writing of the Coens, it never seems incongruous. Instead, it’s a glimpse into another era, perhaps purely mythical, where hyper-verbal elocution and beefy dockworker yapping intermingled in a completely different sort of conversational artistry. In line with the finest examples of film noir dialogue from the sub-genre’s golden age, the characters don’t speak in a way that sounds real. They speak in a way that’s better than real, that’s almost elegant in its flurry of inspired, multi-syllabic roundhouses.

In lesser hands, this sort of approach can be distancing, even oddly sterile. The entire work turns into a sort of museum piece, with this particularly kind of writing and filmmaking seeming like it was frozen in amber to be held up for admiration. The Coens dodge this sort of damning artificial quality by making sure they also go for the gut. As played by Gabriel Byrne, lead character Tom Regan is a cool customer, but Byrne also telegraphs the way that the labyrinthine plot wears Tom down, the way that being in the center of the crossfire of warring factions in a rough-and-tumble city during the Prohibition leaves a welt or two. Then there’s the wrenching sequence in the center of the story, which takes place in a patch of forest that gives the film its name. The Coens don’t change their approach–the scene is structured with the same lean, fierce formality as everything else in the film–but they forcefully show how much of a emotional gut punch can be dealt even in a scene constructed with fully apparent control and precision. It’s just more of that refinement and looseness coexisting to produce something that springs up with unique intensity.

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