The Coen brothers’ masterpiece one-ups Dashiell Hammett (whose novel The Glass Key was the film’s uncredited template) with a liberal dose of rum-runner-era Midwest ambiance, all overcoats and pine forests and gray skies. The story, so thick with its own web-like narrative hijinks and pearly mock patois, ropes around the conflict of nerves between two crime bosses in an unnamed midwestern city and the one man (Gabriel Byrne) trying, for his own reasons, to play both ends against the middle. Don’t ask us why, but films set in Depression-era Middle America always seem to take place in either summertime (when jobless poverty is of relatively little consequence) or autumn (when, as winter approaches, it begins to matter a good deal more). Of course, the Coens aren’t as concerned with actual socioeconomic conditions as much as with the movie-movie ether left lingering in the cultural forebrain, but all the same, Miller’s Crossing lends its autumn a uniquely resonant identity. In this cockeyed world of tweed, bourbon, and northern zephyrs, being left out in the approaching cold is the sorriest fate there is. with Albert Finney, John Turturro, and Marsha Gay Harden.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s second film, and a wild-eyed, Rube Goldberg riot, as Southern-fool marrieds Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, unable to have babies of their own (“Her insides were a rocky place,” Cage’s dopey felon bemoans in an unforgettable narration, “where my seed could find no purchase.”), kidnap one from a set of quintuplets. From there, Raising Arizona is a veritable Road Runner cartoon revolving around the infant’s essentially irresistible baby-ness, and there are enough character-rich hee-haws for ten movies. The urgent matter of getting your hands on some Huggies in the worst of circumstances was never made so thrilling.
A poker-faced slalom through the icy fields of true-crime docudrama, Joel and Ethan Coen’s cascade of frozen Minnesotan cops and crime is probably the loopiest based-on-fact murder drama ever made, something like In Cold Blood reimagined by Dave Barry. Somehow, the filmmakers tell the snowbound saga of a tumbling-dominoes permafrost bloodbath—featuring nerve-frayed scam source William H. Macy, wired hired gun Steve Buscemi, and serene pregnant policewoman Frances McDormand (who won an Oscar for her performance)—as cold realism, yet retain their trademark absurdism and larky rhythms. Having grown up in a Minneapolis suburb, the Coens know the vernacular inside and out; though it often feels like a snarky plummet down a long flight of stairs, the movie ends up being a celebration of quiet banality. By the time we reach the wood chipper, we’re as thankful as McDormand’s Chief Marge that there’s a mittened world full of idiotic pleasantries and all-you-can-eat restaurants to go back to.
The Coen brothers do midcentury New Yawk magical realism with this high-flying launch of poppycock, which revolves around a dolt with a dream (Tim Robbins), a huge corporation with management problems, and a clockwork cosmology that, in various ways, revolves rather wondrously around New Year’s. Again, the holiday is at least half about what’s bygone, so the evocation of a fantastical, screwball Gotham, shrouded in late December snow, makes this film a seasonal shoo-in.