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Underwatched & underrated: Miller’s Crossing

It bombed at the box office, but the Coen brothers’ cult favourite is an underwatched classic.


The Coen brothers are master filmmakers.  They are Oscar winners and household names.  But in 1990, Joel and Ethan Coen were making their third feature, Miller’s Crossing, which won many a critic’s favour but filled very few cinema seats.

Miller’s Crossing is set during the Prohibition Era and is the story of Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), a tough, manipulative Irish mob enforcer.   Tom finds himself caught in the middle of a war between two rival bosses, Leo (Albert Finney), to whom Tom is fiercely loyal, and Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), a volatile Italian rival.  But things become complicated when Leo and Tom find themselves involved with the same woman.  What follows is a journey made up of gunfights, betrayal, whiskey and very stylish hats.

Miller’s Crossing might be alienating because it is complicated. Very complicated.  There is an abundance of double crosses, triple crosses and twists and turns that can be hard to follow.  It’s a film that punishes those who don’t pay attention, but doubly rewards those who do.  It was also released in the same year as two high-profile gangster films, The Godfather Part III and Goodfellas.  These films had directors who had already made a name for themselves, leaving Miller’s Crossing to be overshadowed.  Despite this, I would argue that Miller’s Crossing is perhaps better than both of them (okay, or maybe just as great as Goodfellas).

The Coens’ script oozes with wit.  All the characters talk in a style that is a pleasure to listen to, and deliver their quips at a rat-a-tat pace.  The cast clearly had a great reverence for the script, making sure that they did it justice.  When asked by a bubbling henchman where he had received a cut lip, Tom coldly replies “It’s an old war wound, acts up around morons.”  The Coens’ signature humour is on display here, but it bubbles through their hard-boiled dialogue rather than through surreal imagery or slapstick.

Miller’s Crossing has a score written by Carter Burwell, a frequent Coen brothers collaborator.  The lifting theme of film is played three or four times throughout the two-hour runtime, and you’re always waiting to hear it one more time.  It is a sweet, elegiac score that complements the film’s tone perfectly.

As expected from the genre it belongs to, Miller’s Crossing is very violent.  But the shoot-outs and executions in the film are handled with such flare that they are almost beautiful.  Bullets in this film pierce perfect brown suits and create pools of blood that delicately spread across carved wooden floors.  The effect of the stylish violence and razor-sharp dialogue is to build a poetic love letter to the gangster films of the 1940s and to the prohibition mobsters themselves, presented as the ultimate anti-heroes.

The supporting cast are also terrific.  There is a moment in the middle of the film where Bernie (John Turturro) begs for his life as he stares down the barrel of a gun, and he pleads with such pathetic sincerity that it can be very hard to watch, which is a testament to Turturro’s performance.  Marcia Gay Harden also excels as the hard-as-nails femme fatale who Tom falls for.  Harden is always a joy to see on screen, and the Coens make the most of her infamous steely glare.  There is not one actor who fails to throw themselves into their part; even bit-players deliver lines that will be etched into your memory.

Miller’s Crossing is stylish, violent, smart, and might be the greatest gangster film you’ve never seen.

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