24 May 2003 | ams13
The Intellectual's Gangster Film
"I'm talkin' about friendship. I'm talkin' about character. I'm talkin' about--hell Leo, I ain't embarrassed to use the word--ethics." So Jon Polito, as crime-boss Johnny "Caspar," describes to his overlord, Albert Finney as "Leo," his point of view while seeking permission to kill a double-crossing underling (played by John Turturro) in the opening lines of __Miller's Crossing__. Had the script sought only to explore the power relationship between the two chief mobsters (one the rising Italian, the other the diminishing Irishman), this would have been a very good gangster film. It portrays an earlier era in the nation's history of organized crime (perhaps Chicago in the late '20s), and one can imagine Leo as the Irish predecessor of __The Godfather__'s Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando).
Just as __The Godfather__ was really about family relationships and the ethical complexities arising when familial loyalty collides with the business of violence, however, __Miller's Crossing__ is actually about, as Caspar tells us, friendship and character put under the enormous strain of that same business of violence. The film, therefore, centers on Leo's trusted adviser Tom (played flawlessly by the Irish actor Gabriel Byrne). Tom is not a gunsel, but the brain behind Leo's muscle. His decisions carry life and death consequences, however, and we watch him try to live with himself, to preserve his character, as he works out a code that will help him and his friends survive brutally violent upheavals. Critics of the film have cited its graphic cruelty and the seeming coldness of its characters, yet these are essential features in developing the film's theme.
Sentimentality might get any of the major characters killed, and one notes the pathos and dark humor that underline an ironic distance that each character, especially Tom, cultivates as a tool for survival.
Clues abound as we wonder what Tom will do next. Follow, for example, the men's hats over the course of the film. Who "keeps his lid on," so to speak, and who loses his? Note the number of times characters exclaim "Jesus!" or "Damn!" when saying the name "Tom." What has he sacrificed? Has he damned himself?
Spectacular action sequences, beautiful production values, top-notch camera work by Barry Sonnenfeld, a haunting musical score, and the best dialogue ever written by the Coen brothers make this a great gangster film. The fascinating and complex theme of friendship, character, and ethics make it one of the great films from any genre.