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‘Miller’s Crossing’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 05, 1990

The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, are children of movie technique. In their first two movies, "Blood Simple" and "Raising Arizona," they executed stylistic leaps and somersaults like young circus tumblers, with nary a thought for falling flat on their faces.

There was a childlike, cine-kid exhilaration to it.

Now, in "Miller's Crossing," producer/writer Ethan and director/writer Joel have come of inevitable age. Their routine's become more than just twists and turns. They've taken their show on the road and made a production out of it, with an intricately organized sideshow of themes, exposition, characters and fast talking. Things are getting involved and you'd be well advised to pin your ears back.

The movie starts without warning and at expositional speed. Greasy crook John Polito and henchman J. E. Freeman have come to the lair of crime boss Albert Finney and his lieutenant Gabriel Byrne to make a request. Polito wants to bump off weaselly John Turturro, who's messing with Polito's boxing-fight scams. It's a matter, Polito insists, of "et'ics." However, Turturro happens to be the brother of Marcia Gay Harden, who's fiercely protective of her sibling and with whom Finney happens to be in love. So Finney refuses the request.

There's more: Byrne is having a secret affair with Harden, unbeknownst to his boss Finney. With me so far? One more time: Harden loves brother Turturro, Finney's got to protect Turturro, Byrne loves Harden, Finney doesn't know about Byrne . . .

Aah, skip it. Suffice it to say, Polito and Freeman (both of them truly memorable hoods) aren't going to like this; the lovers' rivalry between Finney and Byrne will heat up; and Harden will be torn between them. We're talking gang war, machine-gunning, clandestine bedroom meetings, bloody executions and funny one liners.

"So you want to kill him?" Finney asks Polito and Freeman in that opening scene.

"For starters," answers Freeman. Whatever the plot details, they're grist for the brothers' stylistic mill, the Coen signature. In one scene, a character faces almost certain gangster execution in the woods. He begs pathetically, his face wet with tears, imploring the gunman, "Look into your heart." As the gunman deliberates over his fate, the camera stays with this scene, with an excruciating originality. In another scene of cartoonish hyperbole, Finney, evading an assassination attempt, scurries out of his bedroom window, then riddles a hood with gunfire. The hood, in a final dance of death, riddles the chandelier and ceiling above him. The shooting seems to last forever. And meanwhile, "Danny Boy" blares sweetly from Finney's Victrola.

"Crossing" is the kind of movie that benefits from a second sitting, to get a complete grip on the plot. There's a great deal going on, although you can certainly skim along on the action at hand, and enjoy the handsome look created by director Joel Coen, cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld and production designer Dennis Gassner.

The Coens remain good with situation. They know how to make something happen all the time. "Crossing" should be watched not because it's their finest achievement (that's still to come), but because the brothers are keeping things refreshingly different and building a career, their minds still very much fixed on originality.

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