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.
As an avid guitarist, there’s a special place in my cold and shriveled little heart for the opening credits scene of Desperado. There are hundreds of popular movies about guitarists, some of which are really great (like Sweet and Lowdown and School of Rock) and some of which are really not (like Rock Star and Crossroads…wait, that’s the Britney Spears one). In the pantheon of Guitar Flicks — which, by the way, should totally be a genre on its own — Desperado might be close to the top, but it certainly isn’t the best movie available. Still, there’s something unique about the way Robert Rodriguez treats the guitar, and something especially mystical about that credit sequence.
Rodriguez’s entire Mexico Trilogy follows the same guitar-playing assassin, and there are probably arguments to be made for Desperado not even being the greatest entry in its own trilogy. While 1992’s El Mariachi was definitely improved upon in subsequent entries with the recasting of Antonio Banderas as El, Rodriguez’s debut feature still plays well as a standalone opener and a part of the larger trilogy. It’s without a doubt the most “realistic” depiction of a guitarist (at least at the beginning), and El’s attempt at finding a gig in the local saloon is probably one of the most gratifying scenes for any musician who’s spent time attempting the same.