Joel and Ethan Coen became cult heroes on the strength of the laconic 1984 noir riff Blood Simple and the 1987 hayseed caper comedy Raising Arizona, but they ran into trouble while working out the labyrinthine plot of their 1990 gangster picture Miller's Crossing. A monumental case of writers' block ensued, and the Coens overcame it by dashing off the absurdist 1991 Hollywood psychodrama Barton Fink. The Miller's Crossing/Barton Fink one-two was as productive as the writer-director-producer-editor brothers had been up to that point, and the reaction to the pictures temporarily defined their careers. They were praised for their snappy dialogue and extreme stylization, but a growing pocket of dissenters grumbled about their rigidly controlled aesthetic and indulgence of the grotesque. Seen fresh on new DVD editions, Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink show the Coens not so much in the arch, chewing-up-old-movies mold of David Lynch and Guy Maddin (as was suspected when the films were released), but developing a more specific pastiche of period details and old-timey genres, inspired equally by their quirky sense of humor and a persistent feeling of disconnection from the human body. Rapid patter and bellowing fat men aside, Miller's Crossing is the most atypical of the Coens' films. In his DVD interview, cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld sums it up as "a handsome movie about men in hats," and that high-toned, Godfather/Conformist feel inspires some of the most naturalistic performances in any Coen film. Gabriel Byrne plays an advisor to Albert Finney, a '30s mob boss hooked up with two-timing moll Marcia Gay Harden and her shyster bookie brother John Turturro. While rival crew leader Jon Polito tries to sway loyalties, Byrne heartlessly plays the angles and avoids getting his hands too bloody. Miller's Crossing is so tangled that it eventually becomes too much about the untangling, but colorful expressions like "Take your flunky and dangle" are amusing, and the story evolves into an examination of situational ethics that integrates philosophy and action far better than The Matrix (created by Coen copycats Larry and Andy Wachowski). Barton Fink trades Miller's Crossing's fixation on hats for a study of heads, in a surreal scenario that plays like a fevered nightmare vision of what it's like to work alone on an impossible task. Turturro returns as a 1940s playwright hired to bring a "common man" touch to a wrestling screenplay, even though he knows nothing about the sport and displays disdain for actual common men. As they often do, the Coens score comic points off the dynamic of powerful bosses and impotent lackeys, as well as the metaphor of wrestlers grappling, and though a subplot featuring John Mahoney as a Faulkner-esque slumming screenwriter proves to be a shrill detour, Barton Fink's focus on bodies cut into pieces and hotel rooms falling apart creates an eerie visual representation of the hero's callousness. People and places are deconstructed, but still Turturro can't figure out what he's told early on: that "empathy requires understanding," not self-satisfied analysis. Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink do occasionally come off as a bit over-storyboarded and under-felt, but a lot of what seemed painfully stylized the first time is what makes Coen movies play better the fourth and fifth. With their early-'90s efforts, the brothers broke away from the light thrills and laughs of their '80s work, and set off to build a filmography as varied, distinctively elaborate, and highly rewatchable as any in recent American cinema.
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