The third collaboration of esteemed filmmakers Joel and Ethan Cohen (Coen brothers) brings us a very interesting gangster story that is set and recognizably stylized in a way that the Cohen brothers themselves know. As with many of their films, this one was not understood and accepted immediately after its premiere, but over time it gained a cult status that makes it considered by some critics to be the best gangster film of all time.
The protagonist of the film is Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne), the right-hand man of the Irish mafia boss Leo (Albert Finney) who comes into conflict with the Italian mobster Jonny Caspar (Jon Polito) and his deputy Eddie Dane (JE Freeman) over the protection of the famous bookmaker Bernie Bernbaum. John Turturro) whom Leo protects, and Johnny wants to kill. Bernie’s sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), who is in a relationship with Leo, but occasionally sees Tom, also gets involved in the story. It is the culprit that Tom and Leo break up and Tom goes to the opposite camp with Johnny Caspar, even though he is still faithful to Leo. He skillfully manipulates the situation, but he comes to the position of losing Verna and has to decide what his priorities are.
All of the Cohen brothers’ films have three essential characteristics that make their projects recognizable: very unusual characters, sharp and precise dialogues, as well as impressive cinematography with a refined sense of beauty. Such is the case with this film, with the addition of numerous symbols and metaphors, such as the hat that is most often mentioned, as well as the symbols of the door and the forest. The script is much more reminiscent of a crime novel than a classic film script, and the whole story revolves around the main theme – loyalty.
The story is quite complex with a lot of small twists and a lot of non-linear and, some would say, incoherent action. It is full of details and it takes more looking to grasp and understand everything. The dialogues are convincing and effective, they simply return to gangster times, and the special charm is added by the top acting and lavish scenes of shootings and executions. Individuals say there may be too much violence, but I definitely disagree with them because this is a gangster movie after all. The direction, scenography and photography are extraordinary, and I think that the film would have been a complete success if it had been shot in black and white.
Gabriel Brin appears in the entire film except in two scenes and provides a truly superb performance by acting a very demanding and complex character. His hero is smart, but surrounded by violent and stupid characters whose strength of muscles and guns is stronger than reason. He is supported by a plethora of great character actors, among whom I single out the always welcome master of striking supporting roles, John Turtur, the maniacal John Polit and the then very young and attractive Marsha Gay Harden in his debut role.
This film is a top homage to gangster films and their way of life, as well as an unforgettable experience for fans of this genre and the works of the Cohen brothers. An achievement that everyone should look at.