There may be no other gangster film in existence that walks the tightrope Miller’s Crossing walks. On the one hand, the third film from the Coen Brothers is of a piece with the 1930s gangster flicks that influenced it, full of colorful criminals and double-crosses and rat-a-tat action. The dialogue is straight from Dashiell Hammett and the production design is straight from the pre-Code era, à la Scarface and Little Caesar. The gangster subgenre and critical thinking on the subgenre are historically grounded in realism, unlike the mythic and symbolic trappings of the film Western, and Miller’s Crossing honors that in its gritty, ruminative approach to a complex plot. It is, in short, a quintessential gangster film.
On the other hand, stuff like this happens:
The pure gangster film we’ve described so far is constantly in sharp discordance with the Miller’s Crossing that knows it’s a gangster film. Self-awareness is not a traditional quality of the gangster picture. We’re supposed to be shocked when characters get riddled with bullets, not laugh at the absurdity of the manner of their demise (see above). Big hulking goons are supposed to be aces in fistfights, not whimper when they get bonked on the nose. And we’re not supposed to be expending energy reading into tophat dream symbolism during a traditional crime flick, right? In short, this is anything but a quintessential gangster film.
Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.
“Writing about the Coens — and mining their oeuvre for Big Ideas — is a sure way of looking like an ass” — so says David Edelstein of New York Magazine in his original review of No Country for Old Men. There is duality to these words, a twin truth, that simultaneously drives and stays my critic’s pen at this very moment. One, Edelstein is absolutely right. Two, I am already quite accomplished when it comes to looking like an ass.
Despite the fact that most everything from the Brothers Coen seems intentionally built to endure traditional long-form critical analysis, maybe some bite-sized stream-of-consciousness notes on the relationship between two of their most celebrated films — Fargo and No Country for Old Men — will net more insight into how the Coens evolved (or devolved) as filmmakers in the decade between those efforts. Maybe we’ll stumble on a few of those Big Ideas before choosing to ignore them altogether. Maybe we’ll be responding in kind to scripts that are often episodic, meandering, content to leave ostensibly-vital plot threads hanging. Or maybe we’ll just look like asses.
There’s this dude Nathan. He’s one of the few dudes onscreen in Ex Machina, the directorial debut of 28 Days Later and Sunshine scribe Alex Garland. Nathan is a walking paradox, even in the most perfunctory surface-level characterization of him as a hard-drinking frat boy who also happens to be a veritable technological genius. Caleb, his temporary intern of sorts, at one point compares him to Mozart — likely the first time a Mozart figure has ever spent so much time on abs and forearms. This straightforward incongruity in Nathan would only work with the right actor in his shoes, and Oscar Isaac is the right actor. A force in Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year, Isaac is utterly convincing throughout Ex Machina. Nathan drains bottles of beer and vodka, yells at his maid, passes out drunk, wakes up to lift weights and beat his punching bag, and soon starts in on the beer and vodka again — and yet he’s always the smartest guy in the room by a longshot.
That somewhat superficial contradiction (or, for the purposes of a review of a film about artificial intelligence: that skin-deep, cosmetic, inorganic contradiction) is only the beginning of Nathan. Isaac is joined by Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, the timid young coder brought to Nathan’s underground tech lair as ostensible winner of a contest to take part in a secret experiment (Isaac and Gleeson are also both in The Force Awakens later this year, which is doubly exciting after seeing Ex Machina). Together they deliberate Ava, Nathan’s advanced A.I. that not only walks exactly like a human and talks exactly like a human but thinks exactly like a human, too. What that means, exactly, is exactly what Ex Machina probes. Maybe. Spoilers follow.