Sometimes great movies slip into oblivion. Running on Empty, rarely talked about, was suggested by the blog “Tipping My Fedora,” a rich source for the analysis of crime fiction books and movies. The other film, Miller’s Crossing pops up on one list or another, but it seems to be the critics’ stepchild when it comes to the almost sainted Coen brothers, who wrote, produced and directed the film. You are likely to hear more about Fargo, Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski, where the comedy is closer to the surface. Miller’s Crossing, more like my favorite Blood Simple, is darker and a more ambitious film. But the comedy, a bit more subtle it seems, is there and the movie is well worth the time.
Running on Empty is a small movie, low-key and its drama is actually not the crime, not the violence, not bringing the criminals to justice. It’s the backstory. The family is in hiding, has been for years because of a politically motivated crime committed by the mother when she was young and revolutionary. Her arrest would destroy the family. But the incessant fear and hyper vigilance as well as the constant running takes a toll on the family. The pressure becomes almost unbearable as the oldest son must choose between keeping the family together and having a life of his own. Few actors can pull off the sort of vulnerability shown by the young River Phoenix — Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape comes to mind — but this is the performance that makes the film. Judd Hirsch, Christine Lahti and Martha Plimpton form the main cast for this film directed by Sidney Lumet. The film was up for several Academy and Golden Globe nominations. It was loosely based on-real life situations.
Miller’s Crossing is a big movie, high key and its drama is the constant crime and violence. While I’m sure there are many who would disagree, Miller’s Crossing is magnificent. It is dark and deadly and crazy and unhappy. It is violent and funny and its occasional preposterousness is entirely believable. As luck would have it, I had just finished reading Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and found this film a reconstruction of not only that era, but also that kind of corrupt, gritty reality that Hammett writes about, and similar in style. The film also has a similar humor that underlies both Hammett’s much more minimal narrative and his colorful dialogue.
Gabriel Byrne plays the burnt-out protagonist. He has his own code of behavior, one that befuddles those around him, but is understandable to those who pay attention. It’s HIS code. And he doesn’t abandon it under any circumstances. Very Hammett. Albert Finney as a tough Irish mobster is riveting. John Turturro has an emotionally demanding role that he accommodates like the major talent he is. John Polito is, as always, the gangster’s gangster. And J.E. Freeman plays against stereotype and is more than notable as “the Dane,” a cold, cruel gay villain. We see the emergence of other, eventual Coen regulars in small parts played by Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand.
In the end, it’s a night of whiskey on the rocks. Probably Irish in honor of the dominant mafia in Miller’s Crossing. One could sip some wine during Running on Empty or simply wait until you get to the hard stuff for the Coen Brothers contribution to noir. Lock up your Tommy guns.