Miller’s Crossing (1990)

The Coen brothers’ third motion picture is a brutal and bloody cross pollination of a 1920’s gangster film and a 1940’s film noir.  Miller’s Crossing has the cleverly written screenplay, and compelling and amplified performances that were quickly becoming part of the Coen pedigree.  This film is quite stylized and in constant danger of becoming cheesy with its dated dialogue, but it never got there.  It is smart and compelling and in most cases it brings you back in time to the late 1920’s when the gangster lifestyle was in its prime and prohibition was in effect.

Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is an advisor to local Irish crime boss, Leo O’Bannion (Albert Finney).  Things start to get tense when rising Italian crime boss Johnny Casper (Jon Polito) and his henchman The Dane (J.E. Freeman) come to Leo asking for help to get rid of weaselly bookie Bernie (John Turturro).  When Leo refuses to help, against Tom’s guidance, Johnny takes it as poor business ethics and a slight against him.  In reality, Leo’s relationship with Bernie’s poisonous sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) makes this a much tougher decision.  As a result, Tom is thrown in the middle of a building crime war and starts playing each side against the other.  You see, Tom is smart, but towards the end of the movie, you may start to wonder if he might be a little too smart.

Miller’s Crossing oozes style.  The majority of the sets are large and shadowy, stark and dingy, with only the bare necessaries adorning their walls, windows and floors. This is quite the contrast to Leo’s office, which looks just like the office of the man who runs the city.  The clubs are bright and elegant, and are reminiscent of the 1920’s flappers culture. Then there is the titular Miller’s Crossing, the area in the middle of the woods commonly used for dumping bodies.  It is barren, cold and scary, and serves as a reminder of what might happen when you mess with the wrong people. Cinematographer Barry Sonnefeld and directors Joel and Ethan Coen film every one of these places with the attention to detail that this story deserves.  The shots at Miller’s Crossing are vast and sweeping, emphasizing how alone one is and how far they have fallen when they have finally reached these woods.  Back in the city, we always see the tall ceilings in the large rooms, and feel almost claustrophobic while watching the scenes in the club.  By showing us his style, Sonnefeld actually immerses us in it.

The Coens’ masterful screenplay grabs you from the opening scene and never lets go.  It is detailed and busy, but still very compelling.  The Coens also litter each scene with the most comprehensive 1920’s lingo I have ever heard in a film, as well as a sprinkle of that dry humor for which the brothers have become famous.  As such, the screenplay is incredibly quotable, and is actually something to be admired.  When hearing the dialogue come from the speakers on your TV, you begin to realize just how much hard work must have went into getting every line just right.  It is beautiful.  I can understand it might be a bit too much for some to follow, but to me, this is one of those screenplays that will reward you over and over again with each rewatch.  This is another gift the Coens have: I have seen The Big Lebowski probably upwards of 50 times (it’s my #2 on Flickchart) and I always get something new from the experience.  I suspect the same will ring true with Miller’s Crossing.

The screenplay is only as good as the mouths that deliver it, and Miller’s Crossing might be lucky enough to have some of the best performances I have ever seen. Truth: I was not sold on Gabriel Byrne as a smart-ass gangster when I sat down to watch this film but as the minutes passed, I found out that I was completely wrong.  His understanding of just how clever and lonely of a man Tom Reagan really is allow him to become the character and present to us a completely believable and captivating performance.  Not to be outdone, Albert Finney as Joe gives us his best performance to date, and I am a sucker for Daddy Warbucks (Annie, 1984).  The infamous “Danny Boy” scene in which he takes on two intruders in his home is pure Coen and 100% entertainment.  When Finney’s not being badass and terrifying, he is exposing his one vulnerability, Verna.  He walks that line carefully and it gives us an electrifying show.  Finally, we have John Turturro in his first collaboration with the Coen brothers. In another personal best for Miller’s Crossing, Turturro’s portrayal of the slimy bookie Bernie is flawless: he can be greasy and pathetic, but then there are moments during quiet one-on-ones where you look in his eyes and realize he can be dangerous.  It’s my favorite performance in the movie and I can’t wait to watch it again. I could go on and on as Jon Polito and Marcia Gay Harden are also fantastic, but you are going to have to see them yourself.

Miller’s Crossing can be seen as extremely stylized and almost overwritten to a fault, but for those that get it, the movie excels in a way that many neo-noirs did not.  It is a film that warrants multiple viewings and denying yourself just one is a crime punishable by a trip to the middle of the deep dark woods.  I’m praying to you — look in your heart!  Go see Miller’s Crossing ASAP.

The stats:

Miller’s Crossing landed at #78 out of a possible 1345 movies on my Flickchart.  That converts to a rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars or 94%.  It is ranked #16 out of 254 movies I’ve seen from the 1990s and it is #2 out of 10 on my seen Coen brothers chart.  It is ranked #4 out of 8 movies I have seen so far in this challenge.

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