Coen Brothers Deliver Unique Take On Gangsters With 'Miller's Crossing'
By STEWART SMITH
When I started this column, I said I wanted to highlight films that had "slipped through the cracks." "Miller's Crossing" might be the ultimate example of just such a film.
Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have seen their profile rise over the last few years (winning a Best Picture Oscar will do that), but for a while their popularity was mostly relegated to critics and a cult following. Their earlier work still gets plenty of love from devoted fans, but even still "Miller's Crossing" (their third film) just doesn't get talked about very much in comparison to, say, "Raising Arizona." And that's a shame, because this movie is just fantastic.
"Miller's Crossing" introduces us to Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), right hand man to Leo O'Bannon (Albert Finney), a Prohibition Era mob boss who essentially controls the entire city. He's got the police and city hall in his pocket and Tom is there to make sure everyone and everything stays in line. Things get complicated, though, when (against Tom's advice) Leo extends his protection to Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), a crooked bookie who cheated rival boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) out of some money. Caspar wants Bernie dead, but Leo is in love with Bernie's sister, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). As a result, the two factions end up going to war with each other, with Tom desperately trying to keep things in check by playing both sides off each other.
Gangster movies are a dime a dozen, but few of them manage to have the sort of vibe and identity that the Coens inject into "Miller's Crossing." Few manage to have characters as compelling or engaging as Tom Reagan. Loyalty has always been a common theme in the subgenre, but rarely has it resonated as strongly as it does here with Tom's devotion to Leo. Byrne is a big reason for this.
For a character that could have come across as cold and distant, Byrne manages to instill a humanity and, dare I say, even a warmth in the man. Tom is calculating and uses every scenario to his utmost advantage (a quality that you can practically see everytime the camera gives us a close shot of his eyes), but he does these things to help protect the man he obviously feels a heap of gratitude and even love toward.
That all of this happens even as Byrne manages to maintain Tom's enigmatic nature is what makes him one of the most engaging characters ever seen in a gangster film. The Coens' tough guy dialogue mixed with Byrne's Irish whiskey voice and he's simply irreplaceable in the role.
Almost all of the characters are engaging in their own right, though. I love the way that, fierce and ruthless as Caspar and Leo may be as mob bosses, they still operate by a code of ethics. There are rules they follow, twisted as they may be. That they operate as such makes characters like Bernie and Caspar's right hand, Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman) all the more dangerous, because they operate outside that defining line of ethics. One is slimy (Bernie) and the other is flat-out sadistic (Dane). It provides for one of the most interesting and unique collections of characters I've seen in a film of this sort.
I will say that it feels a little different from what one might consider a "typical" Coen Bros. movie. It lacks much of the dark humor that has come to define many of their scripts and it's not as visually distinctive so many of their films as longtime collaborator Roger Deakins had yet to come on board with them (which he would do in their follow-up film, "Barton Fink").
It also feels contained, intimate in a way that feels markedly different from almost any of their other films. Obviously none of their works could be described as sprawling or epic, but there's a sense of containment and perhaps even isolation that just isn't present anywhere else in their filmography. It's still gorgeous to look at with a distinct palette of dark greens and rich browns, colors not normally associated with gangster flicks.
As such, it may lack the darker humor of their other scripts, it's still funny at times, though in an understated way. "Rug Daniels is dead." "Gee, that's tough." "Don't get hysterical." It's also got some of the best tough guy lines in the genre. "You ain't got a license to kill bookies and today I ain't sellin' any. So take your flunky and dangle." It's a treat just to sit and listen the actors deliver their lines.
And then there's Carter Burwell's score. Burwell has been one of the Coens' most consistent collaborators and this might be the best he's ever produced for them, as well as being a career-best score. The main theme he composed is arranged in a variety of motifs and it's surprisingly diverse. I've actually got it looping as I type this.
This is a great movie. There's no two ways about it. The music, the performances, the moments (Albert Finney machine gunning down thugs as "Danny Boy" plays while his house burns is an all-time favorite of mine), the characters, it's a rich experience that gets better every time I watch it.
Next time on Unsung Masterpiece Theater I'll review "Street Fighter." Yes, the cheesy video game adaptation starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. I may lose all credibility, but I don't care. This is happening.