Gangster Movie Month: "Miller's Crossing" Review

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Tom Regan, an advisor to a Prohibition-era crime boss, tries to keep the peace between warring mobs but gets caught in divided loyalties.
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Gangster Movie Month: "Miller's Crossing" Review

-- Rating: R (graphic violence)
Length: 115 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 1990
Directed by: Joel Coen
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller

Director Joel Coen and his brother, screenwriting partner and producer Ethan Coen, put together a richly-drawn prohibition drama in "Miller's Crossing," a film full of twists and reversals of fortune. It stars Gabriel Byrne as Tom, a high-level gangster who is the closest advisor and confidant of mob boss Leo (Albert Finney). He has a rigid code that he lives by, which is why Leo trusts him so much, treating Tom like the son he never had. Trouble starts brewing when Leo confesses that he is crazy about Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), a beauty who Leo trusts as much as he does Tom.

Verna's brother Bernie (John Turturro) is a bookie who Leo's rival mobster Caspar (Jon Polito) wants killed. Verna coaxes Leo into putting Bernie under his protection, which means that nobody can kill him. He doesn't realize that Bernie is her brother, or that Verna and Tom have been having an affair behind his back. When Caspar finds out that Leo has put Bernie under his protection, he explodes in anger and declares war on him. Leo is already losing the war to Caspar when Tom, in a fit of jealousy, confesses that he is having an affair with Verna. An enraged Leo sends them both packing, with Tom signing on with Caspar in retaliation.

The first assignment Caspar gives his new charge is to kill Bernie, which disheartens Tom. He has no real attachment to Bernie, but he is still in love with Verna, making the assignment a major dilemma for him. He tracks down Bernie and has a gun trained on him when he decides he can't follow through. He lets Bernie go, which of course angers Caspar even more. It sets in motion a dizzying series of events that are somewhat shocking and unexpected. Tom has to devise a plan to stay one step ahead of both Leo and Caspar, neither of whom care whether he lives or dies. He uses his years of service under Leo and knowledge of the underground world to stay alive until the explosive conclusion. Even if he manages to live, his life will never be the same again.

Byrne has turned in many fine performances over his long career, but "Miller's Crossing" easily ranks among the best. It is obvious that he was influenced by the Coens, who are masters of the minutiae. No detail has gone unnoticed by Byrne, who embodies the character so well that he almost seems to get lost in it; from his mop of hair to the hardened look on his face as he ponders morality in the career field he has chosen, he is a gangster. He is perhaps the only man in the film who has any real honor among thieves, and every price he has paid for the honor shows on his face.

"Miller's Crossing" marks the final time that the Coens would collaborate with Barry Sonnenfeld, who would move on from his perch as their cinematographer to start a directing career of his own. Though all of the Coens' films are superb, the cinematography on their collaborations with Sonnenfeld are the best of the bunch. Sonnenfeld manages to make the Prohibition era come alive with the use of his camera, being sure to show little details that help the audience see what life was really like back then, and why crime bosses like Caspar and Leo were so feared. The best show is arguably the opening shot, which shows a small group of crime thugs laughing over the man they just shot. In the background is a forest that seems to envelop them, shielding the rest of the world from the deeds of these human monsters who walk among them. The shot sets the mood for the film, which almost looks like poetry in motion due to Sonnenfeld's camera mastery.

The film is a fantastic example of film noir, complete with a gun moll, a protagonist who could also be the antagonist, and plenty of amoral people who think nothing of killing to stay on top. It is a ruthless film that will keep viewers on the edge of their seats from the moment it starts until the bitter ending. It's amazing that this is just the fourth film from the brothers, who set the bar high for themselves with modern classics like "Raising Arizona" and "Blood Simple." When this film came out in 1990, critics wondered if the Coens had already peaked creatively. They hadn't peaked yet, but if they had, "Miller's Crossing" would have been a fantastic summit in their filmmaking career.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars