Home > Film, Reviews > Film Review: Miller’s Crossing

Film Review: Miller’s Crossing

 Miller’s Crossing (1990; Directed by Joel Coen)

The Coen Brothers’ films are nearly always concerned with crime, but Miller’s Crossing is their only straight gangster movie to date (the application of the term “straight” to any of their work being inherently extremely loose). As such, it dusts off any number of genre references and homages (The Godfather, of course, but the Coens’ steeping in film history goes deeper than that), but very skillfully crafts several of its own: its opening image of a fedora drifting with dead leaves on the breeze; John Turturro desperately, moistly begging for his life on his knees in the woods; and Albert Finney’s venerable but still steely Irish mob boss (“an artist with a Thompson”, he is dubbed) deftly laying waste to his intended assassins in and around his grand home to the grammaphone-filtered strains of “Danny Boy” (for me, still one of the finest sequences in the Coens’ distinguished filmography; watch it below, you’ll be richer for it).

Miller’s Crossing‘s shrewd anti-hero protagonist, Tom Reagan (an excellent Gabriel Byrne), serves as right-hand man to Finney’s Leo O’Bannon. Tom becomes embroiled in a garden of forked paths of gangland rivalries, blackmailings, ordered hits, and double crosses, involving O’Bannon’s rival Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), Caspar’s ambitious muscle The Dane (J.E. Freeman), O’Bannon’s (and Reagan’s) lover Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), and her brother Bernie Bernbaum (Turturro), a perfidious bookie who has angered Caspar and strains Reagan’s intent to protect him.

As with all of the Coens’ work, Miller’s Crossing functions on one level as sophisticated but fundamentally potboiling pulp genre entertainment, classic Hollywood form touched by their idiosyncratic indie aesthetic, ear for repetitive language, and fondness for human eccentricity. On a whole other level, however, Miller’s Crossing is about the deepest themes of human morality: resentment, empathy, forgiveness, redemption, self-preservation, loyalty, independence, love. The titular location, the isolated forest in which Tom must demonstrate his dedication to his new boss Caspar by eliminating Bernie, is a crossroads of judgement, a venue of moral quandary. Tom’s pity and mercy for Bernie’s basic pathetic human weakness leads him to his least pragmatic decision of the film, one that he must remedy if he is to be free of the consequences of fellow-feeling.

Miller’s Crossing might not quite be comfortably placed in the upper echelon of the Coens’ work, but it’s smart and involving and resonant and practically faultless. Johnny Caspar (a hyperactive talker likely based partly on Chicago gangster legend Al Capone, just as Leo O’Bannon probably takes Capone’s Irish mob rival Dean O’Banion as a model) repeats several times that being well-regarded in this world is a matter of “ethics”. There is a buffoonish irony implied in the use of this term in this context: what “ethics” can one descry in the organized crime underworld with its betrayals, power plays, and shared dialect of violence and murder? But the Coens, too, are talking about ethics in the gangster portrait of Miller’s Crossing. There is famously honour among these thieves, far more than any of them can quite handle. So much that it drives them to act dishonourably to preserve that honour. Such inherent contradiction is a vein of rich mineral for the Coens Brothers, and they mine it lucratively here.

Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: