The Coen brothers have made a large span of movies and it wasn’t until Fargo when they achieved mainstream success. Their earlier projects have tended to be overlooked by viewers and critics alike, and Miller’s Crossing is one of their most neglected films. This is sad because Miller’s Crossing is one of the Coen brothers’ best movies. While it originally tanked at the box office, it has gained popularity in recent years and rightfully so. Miller’s Crossing ranks up with The Godfather Parts I and II, GoodFellas, and Scarface as one of the greatest gangster movies of all time.
The major reason I believe Miller’s Crossing didn’t have a strong initial reception was that it debuted in 1990, the same year two much bigger gangster movies came out: GoodFellas and The Godfather Part III. While I would still assert GoodFellas was the best movie of 1990 (and I would also say it’s the best movie of the decade), in my opinion Miller’s Crossing is at the same level as it (I’ll just be ignoring The Godfather Part III). Miller’s Crossing is really a great movie I think far more people should see and I love it dearly.
Miller’s Crossing takes place in a Prohibition-era America. In a nameless city, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) serves under mob leader Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney). Leo dominates the town like Vito Corleone and all other gangsters obey him. But up-and-coming mobster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) challenges Leo and announces that he intends to kill bookie Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro). Leo, however, is protecting Bernie from Caspar’s men because he is seeing Bernie’s sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Tom advises Leo not to do so, as he knows Verna (who is also having a secret affair with Tom) is only doing so to keep her brother alive.
Miller’s Crossing takes a different tone from The Godfather films and GoodFellas, not just because it takes place in the prohibition era while the others span from the 50s to the 80s. Miller’s Crossing pays homages to many of the old classic gangster movies from its eye popping scenery to the ensemble of characters. Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who has worked with the Coens before on multiple other projects, gives the film an old-fashioned look and feel to it.
But Miller’s Crossing doesn’t just pay its dues to gangster films but to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sergio Leone’s remake A Fistful of Dollars. All feature a protagonist (in Miller’s Crossing‘s case, Tom) who plays off of two different sides, as Tom eventually works for Caspar after Leo dismisses him.
While the Coens have mostly stuck with offbeat comedies, Miller’s Crossing has their feel all over it. There are two Coen regulars starring in the film, Turturro and Steve Buscemi (who plays a brief role in the movie) and the picture is highly stylized and full of dialogue only the Coens could come up with. The movie is full of the darkly humorous spirit the Coens are known for. In the film’s best scene, Leo fights two gangsters attempting to murder him in his house with the song “Danny Boy” playing in the background, which has to rank with “Ride of the Valkyries” from Apocalypse Now and “Stuck in the Middle with You” from Reservoir Dogs as one of the best uses of music in a scene.
Carter Burwell’s score is particularly light, conveying a giddy, upbeat mood to be juxtaposed with the movie’s gritty violence. There is a particular shot where a bowl hat is flying through the woods where Burwell plays a sweet melody. In a way it shows the divide between violence and peace.
The Coens couldn’t have hired a better cast. Many of the characters are hard-boiled, gritty, and tough. Gabriel Byrne plays Tom Reagan the same way Clint Eastwood did with the Man with No Name. Tom is a serious man but is sympathetic with others’ concerns. Albert Finney and Jon Polito are great in their roles as two mobsters, and John Turturro plays Bernie with a mix of humor and darkness.
Miller’s Crossing remains one of the Coen brothers’ greatest films, arguably their best. It deserves to receive the popularity that the Coens’ later films like Fargo and No Country For Old Men have achieved. All in all, it is one of the most delectable gangster movies ever produced.