Wednesday, 28 July 2010
I need to declare up front that I am a fan of the Coen brothers and the way they make films. This did not disappoint. It is a barn-stormer of a film in almost any way you wish to look at it. It may be 20 years old, but because it is set in a composite mythical world constructed from everyone's view of what 1930's gangster run prohibition USA was like, it connects in a way that refuses to let it age. The gentle browns of the colour palette and lighting espouse an almost sepia-toned reverence for a nostalgic golden age when men were men and women were there to do their bidding - and nothing more.
It is not a good film for a positive portrayal of gender roles. This is a very masculine film. There is only one female character and all other women are depicted as either floozies or servile receptionists. Verna is depicted as being as strong as any of the male characters and she is certainly as sharp as anyone in keeping up with the 'who is on which side' evolution of the story.
The iconic moment of the opening sequence pictures Tom's hat blowing to the ground where it rests momentarily before being blowing along a path in the woods at Miller's Crossing - a place at which pivotal events take place. It is reminiscent of the bag spiralling in the wind in American Beauty. It is also an image that haunts Tom - the central character. This is played on to good effect to heighten tension and suspense later on in the film.
The story is set in a an anonymous town enjoying the prosperity and technological advances of the age - trams, street lighting, telephones. The town is run by Leo - a Jewish gangster - who has the Mayor and Chief of Police in his pocket. Nothing happens in the town that doesn't make Leo money and it seems that everything in the town is centred on betting, drinking and maintaining Leo's position as top dog. All is well with the fraternity of Jewish, Italian and Irish mobsters in the town. That is until one of them feels he is being 'unfairly' cheated on.
That introduces the narrative's central theme of honour. As the Italian character Johnny Caspar repeats his mantra throughout the film, 'it's about ethics', we are taken on a grand tour that explores loyalty coming into conflict with the need to control, exert power, display trust and be entranced by love. Caspar has a beef with one of Leo's underlings that he feels isn't playing by the rules. That sets him on collision course with Leo and Tom advises Leo on how best to resolve the impasse to allow business to continue as usual. Leo chooses not to follow Tom's advice and sets up a series of confrontations that spark a mob war. As this unfolds, there are further plot twists revolving around Tom who has ongoing 'business' with Lazarre and Bernbaum - Verna's brother. Further fuel is added to this incendiary mix by the fact that both Leo and Tom are in a relationship with Verna and Leo wants to marry her.
Tom takes things into his own hands in an attempt to resolve things and restore a kind of peace - but it seems that he doesn't have a detailed plan as events repeatedly cause him to improvise and play one mobster off against the other on the fly. This means that Tom is out on his own and everyone feels they have a legitimate grievance against him. Does he set himself up as a crusading saviour seeking to restore equilibrium to a community in conflict and turmoil?
A striking feature of the film is the in-your-face technicolour comic book violence that owes more to the Batman TV series of the 60's and the A-Team of the 70's than reality - a hall mark of the Coen brothers. However, Tom chooses not to engage in physical violence and takes several beatings that if inflicted in the real world would have ruptured many internal organs. (He does once use a chair to defend himself.)
Non-violence in a violent world. Tom chooses to be violent in thought, intent and through provoking others to enact violence on one another. It is as though his inner world of scheming and plotting presents a reality which detaches him from the exterior - a world within a world. Perhaps this is a mirror of the film's central plot - that in a world of illicit gambling and drinking another world exists where the rules are clear, a morality understood and followed and where loyalty is the highest prize. A portrayal of purity in the midst of impurity. What this serves to underline are the dangers of a morality that is relativistic and which fails to acknowledge an exterior source of grace and wisdom. It is totally self-serving and ultimately becomes self-defeating.
The film is dense. By that I mean that it moves at an even pace and absolutely nothing is wasted - it demands complete attention. The acting is superb, the lighting and sets powerfully evocative of something that probably never existed - a simulacrum. The dialogue is pure Coen brothers - no wasted words and much meaning communicated in and through the spaces created by the Director and characters - especially Tom. Additional interest is added through the gay relationship between Dane and Mink which is presented in an open and matter-of-fact way.
I found this film gripping, excellent, convincing, repulsive and at the same time attractive with all the strength of an inescapable addiction. It communicated. Tom is a strong character but we know nothing of him except what we see him do - the same goes for all the characters, there is no back-story, no context. There is one scene where Tom chooses to exercise mercy and compassion. Are these things that inform his normal thought processes? For me it made Tom an even more believable and likeable character. It presented a glimpse of something that could transcend the moral ambiguity and bankruptcy of the narrative - it gave hope.
As a man I could understand and inhabit the world the film presented. It was like a favourite and warmly familiar overcoat that kept you warm. If this is the world as women encounter it, we are in deep doo doo and I am sorry for my complicity in it. Was Verna the only character with a consistent and life-giving morality? I wish to reassure you that I have no intentions of opening an illegal gambling and drinking den or of obtaining a Tommy gun and bumping off people who disagree with me, or playing by a relativist morality that is controlling and exploitative. There is much in this film to repulse the viewer - but this viewer would happily watch it again today - and possibly tomorrow too!
Well worth the investment of time - it will engage you. I'll give it 8.5/10.