Retro Rental: Pumped for 'Lawless'? Take a Swig of 'Miller's Crossing'

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The Weinstein Co./20th Century Fox

[Each week, depending on what's in theaters, what's in the news or what's on his mind, film critic James Rocchi brings you the "Retro Rental," an older film on disc or download that connects with the here-and-now ...]

It's a little sad when you're let down by a film -- anyone who loves movies can certainly laugh at a bad film with the best of them -- but I think the real secret key to the movie lover's club's most secret hallows would be how you want every movie to be good. Or even amazing.

Take, for example, this week's 'Lawless,' a Prohibition-era drama about the Bondurant boys, backwoods bootleggers who refused to play along with a more hypocritical and corrupt form of the previous hypocritical corruption that had been earning them a fortune up to now.

The Bondurant boys are played by Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke; Jessica Chastain is on hand for sexual tension and Mia Wasikowska is on hand for more chaste adoration, and Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce are in it to win it as gangsters with distinctive facial hair.

And all the while, I was just thinking, "Well... okay." 'Lawless' is hardly bad, but it's not that great, either; what do you say about a Prohibition drama where the best screen presence is Tom Hardy's cardigan? And so, even during 'Lawless,' sipping on a diet coke and watching what turned out to be, despite the cast and creators involved, a low-to-no-calorie film, I thought, "I wish I was drinking a scotch and watching 'Miller's Crossing.'"

Made in 1990, 'Miller's Crossing' is, maybe, the Coen Brothers movie you're least likely to have seen; in terms of their timeline, it's between their early small-budget indies and later indie-shaped Oscar-winners. It's roughly inspired by Dashiel Hammet's novels 'Red Harvest' and 'The Glass Key,' but it's almost more of a tribute to a kind of fiction that it is a piece of fiction itself. In a brick-red and oak-brown American city, the local illegal booze trade and sundry affiliated illegal activities are controlled by Leo (Albert Finney) and his right-hand man Tom (Gabriel Byrne); when underling Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) asks Tom to do him a kindness and let him kill Bernie Bernbaum (John Tuturro) for ruining his fixed boxing matches, Tom can't let it go... because Bernie is the sister of Tom's mistress, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden).

Sex, murder, money, booze, desire, secrets... and that's just the first five minutes. 'Miller's Crossing' unfolds with a bunch of deft surprises -- and does so superbly -- but it also makes you care about its characters. When people get dragged and pushed out to Miller's Crossing -- the desolate stand of scrub and trees where the local gangsters take their victims for a long last walk -- they know what it means, and we feel their dread, and all of the film's zippy lingo and sassy screwball dialogue and luxurious suits and sets go away. And we get the nitty-gritty of what all crime stories are about under their zest and rakish charm, which is the terrifying idea that someone can and will kill because it's more profitable and expedient to do so.

'Lawless' might get a better-than expected boost at the box office, and that's all well and good (secretly, real film lovers also hate to see movies lose money, at least the halfway decent ones). But if you see and dig 'Lawless' and are feeling like a rougher, tougher second shot of the old-fashioned good stuff (or, at least, the old-fashioned new-school good stuff), the rich amber rawness and sting-and-choke cynicism of 'Miller's Crossing' will go down just fine.

'Miller's Crossing' is available on Blu-ray.

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