From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Movie Retrospective: Kiss Me, I'm Irish Week
Miller's Crossing

Leo O'Bannion: Oh, come on, Tommy. You know I don't like to think.
Tom Reagan: Yeah. Well, think about whether you should start.

It's in this brief exchange at the end of the opening scene in Miller's Crossing that the audience quickly learns Tom Reagan's worth to Leo O'Bannion. Leo (Albert Finney) rules the Irish mob in a Prohibition era town. What Tom (Gabriel Byrne) is advising Leo think about relates to a man, a woman, and her brother.

Johnny Caspar (Cohen Brother's regular Jon Polito) wants Leo to give up a shiftless bookie that works for Leo. The bookie, Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), has been cutting into Caspar's racket fixing fights. Bernie is selling inside info one the fights Caspar fixes, thereby driving down Caspar's profit on the transactions. Caspar wants to knock of Bernie to settle what Caspar tries to pass off as a matter of "ethics". Honor among thieves indeed.

The catch that keeps Leo from seriously considering Caspar's request is that Leo is in love with Bernie's sister Verna (Marcia Gay Garden, in her first major role). Verna knows that as long as she's involved with Leo, Bernie will benefit from Leo's protection, even if it proves detrimental to Leo's business in the long run.

Tom knows that also. And he knows just how badly Leo is getting played because he's sleeping with Verna too. Tom knows that Leo is measuring the business with Bernie with his heart, not with his head. He knows that if he doesn't do something to get Caspar some satisfaction, the whole business could go up. He can't just talk about his affair with Verna, because he could lose his position working for Leo. Plus Verna might get hurt, and part of Tom loves her. And somewhere along the way, Tom needs to figure out how to pay his gambling debts. Because while he's a very smart criminal, he's also a very poor gambler.

From this convoluted tangle of relationships, the Cohen Brothers weave one of their most interesting stories (in my opinion, it's the best thing they've ever done), and also one of their most low key. This is a straight forward story of crosses and double crosses, as everyone involved tries to play the angles to protect their interests as much as possible. The twists and turns the story follows take you some places you wouldn't expect. And it does so in very entertaining fashion.

The performances in this movie are all very top notch. Byrne is a really fascinating study as Tom. You never really quite know where his thoughts are going to take him. A lot of the time when it seems like he's pulling something out of his ass, he seems genuinely surprised when his BS seems to pay off. And he and Harden as Verna really crackle with some strong chemistry. There's a fight they have in the powder room of Leo's club that is really amazing, and has a couple of the best lines I've heard in a Cohen Brother's movie (or any film for that matter). It has the feel of a film noir mob drama right out of the 40's or the 50's to me. Definitely appeals to my film geek side :-).

The supporting performances are all really solid as well. Polito as Caspar is a nice dichotomy between a man who isn't nearly as smart or well read as he thinks he is, and a psycho who's even more ruthless than he gives himself credit for. And he's complimented nicely by J.E. Freeman as his bodyguard Eddie Dane. The Dane (as he's called) is a really fearsome figure. He's just someone you look at and right away you know he's seven different kinds of mean.

Turturro is also great as Bernie. Shifty little SOB really knows how to work everything he possibly can. He IS as smart as he thinks he is and more. And he knows just how to play people's weaknesses against them in the way most beneficial to him.

The movie moves to another level altogether because of the way it is shot. This was the last film Barry Sonnenfeld shot for the Cohen's as their cinematographer. He's camera work gives the film some very surreal overtones that make everything seem just a touch off kilter, but draw you into the story even more. There's an execution sequence that occurs in the middle of the woods (if you buy the DVD, it's the scene depicted on the cover) that is really compelling for it's dreamlike qualities. Combined with a great score from Carter Burwell, and you've got a really complete package that works on just about every level.

I wouldn't rank this film in my top 10 all time, but it might be in my person top 20. There are just so many things about it that really appeal to me, and there are still scenes that just leave me breathless no matter how many times I watch it. As a mob film, it works really strongly, and as a Cohen Brother's film, I think it's as strong a "straight" drama they've done as Blood Simple. Definitely a film to see if you're in the mood for something just a little bit dark, but not too dark. Give it a shot.

Tomorrow I have a social engagement to attend to, but will try and The Brothers McMullen up if possible.