It is hard to argue that the Coen brothers are not some of the best film writers of our time. Great movies like Raising Arizona (1987), Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998) are all products of these prodigious writers. Each film they make is anything but rigidly formulaic. The originality of each of these films impresses me to no end. Miller’s Crossing is no exception.
The plot is tightly woven, so much so that the two brothers needed a break from writing the script and during a three-week vacation to New York City, they ended up writing Barton Fink—the entire film. Now if that’s not talent, I don’t know what is. I am also not sure it qualifies as a vacation but that is neither here nor there.
The film is flawlessly shot and the scenes are accompanied by appropriate music. The attention to detail is immaculate giving the viewer the look and feel of the dirty, debauched city that conjures up nostalgia without controlling the story. The script is well paced, consistently tense and always capturing the audience’s attention, but it is never exhausting—it is almost Casablanca like. When compared to movies depicting the same historical genre, Miller’s Crossing’s excellence is that much more obvious, films like The Untouchables are unrealistic and are forced to rely on big name stars to carry you to the end. Miller’s Crossing actually requires you to listen and is much more satisfying.
This consistent level of excellence extends to nearly all of the performances of the cast. Each of the characters has multiple layers and motivations that are not so simplistic as to be predictable but not overly complex so as to be enigmatic. Each character brings something positive to the show unlike supporting roles in something like The Untouchables.
Miller’s Crossing details the burdens and obligations of law and the mob in a prohibition era town. The film’s main character, Gabriel Byrne, in what I think is his best performance, plays the protagonist Tom Reagan, the chief advisor to the local mob boss, Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney). The two have a successful working relationship, with Leo being the town’s most powerful gangster. Things turn sour though, when rival mobster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito)—(the only mobster I know of that was ever concerned about “etics”) wants to kill an unreliable bookie (John Turturro) and Leo refuses. Tom knows this is the wrong decision and protests, Leo and Tom part ways and then matters become a little more complicated. The unreliable bookie also happens to be the brother to Leo’s girlfriend and Tom’s lover Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) injecting love into an already volatile situation. Leo and Caspar go to war as a consequence.
Tom uses every trick he can to convince Leo to give Bernie up to Caspar to put an end to this unnecessary war; he tries to convince Leo that Verna is playing him to protect her brother (which is true), but Leo will not budge. After an assassination attempt on Leo goes bad, Tom reveals his affair with Verna to prove that she is dishonest. Naturally Leo beats Tom up and turn his back on both of them. Without a job, Tom then appears to change sides and goes to work for the new capo Caspar. He is immediately commanded to kill Bernie at Miller’s Crossing to prove his loyalty.
The chicken shit Bernie pleads with Tom to spare him, and Tom allows him to escape. Meanwhile the war starts to go well for Caspar and he assumes Leo’s position as boss of the city. However, Tom slowly begins sowing seeds of discontent between Caspar and his most trusted enforcer, Eddie Dane (Freeman). Unfortunately, at the same time, Bernie returns and tries to blackmail Tom into killing Caspar—what a show of gratitude.
Tom’s manages convince Caspar to kill Eddie Dane because Caspar is tricked into believing that the Dane has the double cross on and Casper hates the double cross. Tom then arranges a meeting with Bernie, but sends Caspar instead. Bernie gets the jump on Caspar and kills him. Tom arrives and tricks Bernie into giving up his gun, saying they could blame Eddie Dane, then reveals his intention to kill Bernie. Bernie once again begs for mercy, saying “Look into your heart”, but Tom blows the ungrateful bastard away.
With Caspar and Eddie Dane dead, Leo resumes his post as top boss. Verna has also won her way back into Leo’s good graces, but she reacts coldly to Tom. On the day Bernie is being buried, Leo announces that Verna has proposed to him, and offers Tom his old job back. Tom rightfully refuses, and he remains behind and watches Leo leave.
Given that Miller’s Crossing is a great movie without million dollar special effects, it was a box-office failure at the time, making slightly more than $5 million, out of its $10–$14 million budget. Luckily, it has made a great deal of revenue in video and DVD sales. The film is now critically acclaimed, and has a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
I remember seeing this film while at University nostalgically remembering how powerful it was back then. After viewing it years later with a friend who had never seen it, I was all the more impressed with Miller’s Crossing and you will be too.