Loosely based on Dashiell Hamett’s Red Harvest, Miller’s Crossing is an intelligent gangster film shot in the style of a film-noir. Directed by Joel Coen, and produced by Ethan Coen and Mark Silverman, the film centres on Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne), who is the “right hand” of Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney), an Irish-American political boss, running a Prohibition-era city somewhere in the US. Leo has a “beef” with Johnny Casper, a gangster and his Italian rival. Leo’s girlfriend is Verna, whose brother Bernie Bernbaum has a contract on his life and is wanted dead by Casper. The idea here is that by “giving” Bernie to Casper to kill, Leo and Casper can come to a peaceful understanding and agreement. However, Leo is reluctant to do so because of his girlfriend, who wants to see her brother alive. Tom thinks that Leo is making a mistake. However, Tom also has an affair with Verna, seemingly being in love, and therefore is also, at least “deep inside”, is trying to protect her. When Tom starts to “play” both sides, the unexpected happens.
Miller’s Crossing is not one’s usual gangster film. It has more “style” and “attention to detail” that an ordinary action flick. The film has a complex, intelligent narrative, which revolves around two rival criminal gangs who fight for control of an US city amidst police corruption in the 1930s. Miller’s Crossing is “heartfelt” to the point of being eerily nostalgic. This maybe because the film has an unusual style, and largely revolves around the idea of loyalty. The film displays a number of powerful imageries, including a flying black hat amidst autumn’s leaves, and men in black overcoats in the middle of a forest, which are rather memorable. The impact of this imagery is fuelled by the beautiful music composed by Carter Burwell (Blood Simple (1984) and Raising Arizona (1987)).
In terms of intelligence and complexity, Miller’s Crossing also scores high, and has more meaning than first meets the eye. As the tagline to the film suggests, the film will make the viewer question the “fundamentals”. Miller’s Crossing’s narrative is brilliant; contains a wide variety of interesting twists and surprises; builds up its plot slowly and flows beautifully. And all that taking into account the fact that the Coen brothers somehow managed to suffer a “writer’s block” while writing their scenario. Also, the focus of the film is its characters: their thoughts, feelings, beliefs and actions. In that way, Miller’s Crossing has an almost theatrical feel to it. While the film’s plot is complex and interesting (attributed to the “genius” of the Coen brothers), it is also hard to grasp at times, especially at the very beginning, when it is hard to discern from the dialogue what is actually going on. In that line, the film may actually require a second viewing, not least so as to understand every detail presented.
The character of Tom Regan deserves a special mention. As Byrne himself admits, the character of Tom is “so deep and has so many dimensions” that Byrne was “almost compelled” to play him. Tom is a loner, an outsider and a silent observer, who has a special hobby of manipulating people and events to his advantage. However, his competitive advantage is that he does so behind the stage. He is also the kind of person whom the audience would admire from afar, even if they would not fully understand him or his actions. As the true personality of Tom remains a mystery throughout the film, untangling his character becomes yet another of this film’s enjoyments. Gabriel Byrne (Stigmata (1999), Usual Suspects (1995), Spider (2002)) gives an excellent performance. Byrne has these “dark edges” about him, and has previously admitted that he hates to show any signs of weakness. Tom has a personality which commands a sense of authority almost immediately upon an acquaintance, and, arguably, Byrne can do this better than anyone else.
Albert Finney (Erin Brokovich (2000)), who plays Leo, a political “fixer”, is also brilliant. Finney makes Leo not just a tough man and a cool businessman, but also a compassionate, and sometimes, vulnerable person. Jon Polito (Barton Fink (1991)) plays Johnny Casper, and portrays him very believably, with a lot of energy. Marcia Gay Harden, who plays Verda, is also good. However, it is John Turturro’s acting which captures a special attention. Turturro plays Bernie Bernbaum, Verna’s brother, who is on the run from Casper’s gang. Bernie is a very interesting character, and his monologues are essentially what makes this film so dramatically thrilling to watch.
Considering the film’s drawbacks, it is hard not to mention the portrayal of violence. The fighting sequences are a touch on the unbelievable side, and the dialogue, some slang stemming from the 1930s US, is hard to understand at times. This makes the film a well-researched one, but, arguably, also a less enjoyable one.
Nevertheless, despite its sporadic unrealism, Miller’s Crossing is still witty and intelligent, a timeless film that will be enjoyed for decades to come.