Miller's Crossing (1990)
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, John Turturro, Jon Polito
Plot: Tom Regan, an advisor to a Prohibition-era crime boss, tries to keep the peace between warring mobs but gets caught in divided loyalties.
Genre: Crime / Drama
Rating: NC16 for strong violence.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
“You gotta remember to put one in his brain. Your first shot puts him down, then you put one in his brain. Then he's dead. Then we go home.”
If you think Coppola's The Godfather Part III was overshadowed (though deservedly) by Scorsese's electrifying, game-changing gangster biopic Goodfellas that year, you have to pity the Coens, whose work Miller's Crossing, opened the New York Film Festival, but seemingly stared down an empty alley right after.
An underrated, perhaps even underseen work of the Coens, Miller’s Crossing is only their third feature after Blood Simple (1984) and Raising Arizona (1987), and also their third and final collaboration with cinematographer-turned-director Barry Sonnenfeld, who is most well-known for directing the ‘Men In Black’ trilogy.
Miller’s Crossing centers on a violent tug-of-war between two mobs during the Prohibition era in the 1930s. Tom Regan, as played by Gabriel Byrne, working as an advisor to a crime boss Leo (Albert Finney) tries to keep the peace by almost single-handedly hatching a smart but risky plan to overcome unhealthy tensions, only to be caught in divided loyalties and a problematic romantic liaison.
The Coens leave us befuddled in the first act, but as the film moves on, we get a clearer sense of the characters, their motivations, but like Tom, we are surprised by what comes at him. I must say that for a crime movie that is also a recreation of the 1930s organized crime landscape, the Coens have done an excellent job that is very much in their own style and sensibility.
The performances are top-notch, particularly the supporting cast including John Turturro and Jon Polito. With witty, at times seemingly rehearsed dialogue, Miller’s Crossing may come across as unnatural, though naturally Coen-esque. It’s also a case of complex plotting rather than emotional, in-depth storytelling, leading some critics to complain that the film is all style and no narrative significance.
I beg to differ. If anything, Miller’s Crossing is a homage to the classic gangster genre, with a light touch of film noir. The settings, so evocatively captured by Sonnenfeld, particularly the muted green forest that gives the film’s title its resonance, are key to the film’s visual style. It is this consistent style that lays the foundation for the narrative to not only develop, but to subvert.
Violent when it needs to be, Miller’s Crossing features some stunning shootout sequences, especially one midway through the picture involving Finney's character. Sometimes people go wacky, unheard of in that (or of any) era – this is where the Coens' distinctively offbeat, idiosyncratic style and characters comes hurtling at you. Occasionally slow, but never uninteresting, Miller's Crossing should warm you up nicely on a rainy Sunday afternoon without disappointing.
Verdict: Only their third feature, the Coens show that they could do a 1930s gangster movie in a style of their own.
GRADE: A- (8.5/10 or 4 stars)
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