“Miller’s Crossing” Review

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

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, some unexpected events start to take place.

Miller’s Crossing’ is not one’s usual gangster movie. It has more “style” 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 1930s. Unlike such films as ‘Goodfellas’ (1990) and ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1993), ‘Miller’s Crossing’ is more “heartfelt”, to the point of being eerily nostalgic. This maybe because the film has a different style from these films, and largely revolves around the idea of loyalty. ‘Miller’s Crossing’ is also a very unusual film in that it dictates an atmosphere and pace of its own. The film sets a powerful imagery (e.g., a flying black hat amidst autumn’s leaves, or men in black overcoats in the middle of a forest), which becomes unforgettable. 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. From its beginning and until its very end, the film is thought-provoking. It 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, in the Cronenberg’s magnetic and unforgettable style, 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 of the movie.

Also, even though the film has a style of a “film noir”, some critics have noted that the film does not “live up to a standard” in that regard. But, even though ‘Miller’s Crossing’ may not reach the heights of ‘The Big Sleep’ (1946), it does not have to, nor does it set the agenda of doing so. It is a strange cross of the two genres and it plays both equally well. 

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 a kind of person who 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) and (‘Spider’ (2002)) gives an excellent performance, and this is, at least partly, because the role of Tom suits him well. Byrne has these “dark edges” about him, and has previously admitted that he hates to show any signs of weakness. This statement becomes very relevant in relation to the movie, because the character of Tom can also be described along these lines. 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 (probably best known now for his role in ‘Erin Brokovich’ (2000)), who plays Leo, a political “fixer”, is also brilliant here. 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 in the movie are so unbelievable as to openly mock the reality they try to ascertain. Comparing the scenes of violence in ‘Miller’s Crossing’ to other films produced that year, ‘Miller’s Crossing’s take on action and violence could either be considered as badly executed or intentionally left “cartoonish”. Either way, some of them are very amusing to watch. Another drawback of ‘Miller’s Crossing’ is, of course, its dialogue: there is some slang stemming from the 1930s US, which is hard to understand without a dictionary at hand. This makes the film a well-researched one, but, arguably, a less enjoyable one (unless of course it adds to the mysterious ambivalence of the plot). Roger Ebert also notes that the fault mainly lies in the details here, i.e., he does not believe that Leo would have had such a poshly rich office akin more to some wealthy lawyer’s private room. Ebert is also sceptical regarding the clothing, haircuts and accents of the main characters.

Despite its faults, however, ‘Miller’s Crossing’ is a kind of film that is timeless. It will still be enjoyed for decades to come. Like Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994), it is so original, witty and intelligent, it sets the standard which is very hard to beat. Acclaimed by critics, with an enviable 91% score on the Rotten Tomatoes, ‘Miller Crossing’ is not to be missed, especially for the lovers of complex, thought-provoking action films. Despite rightly termed as too unrealistic by some, ‘Miller’s Crossing’ is still a very entertaining movie overall. 9/10

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16 Responses to “Miller’s Crossing” Review

  1. Mark Walker says:

    Marvellous in depth review there. I couldn’t agree more. This is one my favourites from the Coens and I’m a massive fan. The only problem I had though, is my dislike for Gabriel Byrne. I really don’t rate him as an actor but this film was so strong and his character so good that it overshadowed my dislike for him.

  2. dbmoviesblog says:

    Thank you. Gabriel Byrne is a tricky one. I think he “fits” the pictures he is in well. However, I first saw him in “The Usual Suspects” – maybe that’s the main reason why I still think of him as an “intelligent” and “deep” actor.

    • Mark Walker says:

      Strangely, I enjoy his movies very much but I think he tends to be the weakest element. If that even makes sense? I agree he’s makes intelligent choices. Do you ever get that with an actor though? They don’t do a lot wrong but for some reason you take a dislike to them?

      • morny7 says:

        I don’t think he’s a particularly good actor, and he has no range whatsoever. However, if he lands a role which suits his talents (dark, brooding, aloof) then he can be very,very effective. He’s decent in Usual Suspects, and he’s outstanding in this – as I say though (and as you allude in your review), it’s possibly more because it’s very similar to who he actually is.

        • Mark Walker says:

          I suppose the Coens have a real knack for choosing the perfect actor for the perfect role. Who am I to disagree with the most constantly productive of filmmakers? Byrne was quite fitting for Millers Crossing and I don’t suppose there’s was great selection of Irish actors at this time, that could have taken this role on. Despite my dislike for Byrne though, Miller’s Crossing is probably my third favourite from the Coens, after The Big Lebowski and No Country For Old Men.

          • morny7 says:

            Good shout about Big Lebowski, it does run it very close for me, but Miller’s Crossing is my favourite, which says a lot about how highly I rate it as there is such I love so many of the Coen’s films. Only ones I’m not too fussed about are Intolerable Cruelty, Ladykillers and Man Who Wasn’t There (sometimes feel I’m the only person who isn’t a fan of this though). Brilliant filmmakers

            • Mark Walker says:

              I’m with you man. The Ladykillers is definitely there weakest film. Intolerable Cruelty next bit I did still enjoy them both. It just felt like diluted Coens. I love The Man Who Wasn’t There though. A great recreation on film-noir with a Coens spin on it. The Hudsucker Proxy I found weak at points. Overall, its a decent movie but weak.

  3. morny7 says:

    Good review. For my mind this is comfortably the Coen brothers strongest movie, which is strong praise considering the strength of their filmography. Masterful dialogue and cinematography throughout the movie, and a fantastic story. A genuine modern classic.

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Thanks. I agree this movie is a “a genuine modern classic”, as you say. The film has had a huge impact on me, and I am hard to please when it comes to films. At times the film seems “perfect” somehow. Sadly, few films nowadays manage to achieve this effect.

      • morny7 says:

        Yeah, it’s a one in a kind sort of film, and completely different to almost anything. It’s so good and rightfully considered a modern classic, yet it rarely gets due praise in list of ‘great films’ and such like, seems very under-appreciated. It’s a shame.

        Love the ‘Danny Boy’/Albert Finney scene, spine-tinglingly good. Also, if I’m not mistaken, it is also homaged in the anime bit of Kill Bill Vol. 1, which is at least a nice little reference to the film’s brilliance.

  4. jackdeth72 says:

    Hi, db and company:

    I kind of wandered over here from your liking my guest review of ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ at FlixChatter.

    Great looking site and choice for a film to critique!

    ‘Miller’s Crossing’ looks and feels more like Hammett’s ‘The Glass Key’. Which was the basis for a tight little Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake and William Bendix B&W noir from 1942. While Bruce Willis’ and Walter Hill’s ‘Last Man Standing’ is much more along the lines of Hammett’s ‘Red Harvest’ and its dirty town, Poisonville.

    The entire cast of ‘Miller’s Crossing’ rocks out loud. Especially Jon Polito, Marcia Gay Harden and J.E. Freeman’s Eddie Dane.

    • Mark Walker says:

      Jon Polito man! Superb! “Ethics! When I fix a fight I expect that fight to stay fixed” J.E. Freeman also. Two of the Coens’ finest characters. And they have a lot of good ones.

    • jackdeth72 says:

      Hi, Mark!

      “I wanna talk about…. Etthicks!” Gets me every time.

      So does the Dane’s “I’m gonna send you to a deep dark place. And I am going to have FUN doing it!” While beating the snot out of and choking Tom.

      • Mark Walker says:

        Haha. Class man! It’s one of the Coens’ finest intro’s ( and they have many). I became a big fan of Polito after this. He’s also wonderful as Daffino (a brother Shamus) in The Big Lebowski. The Coens certainly know their character actors and Polito is one of them. I’m surprised they never used J.E. Freeman again though. He was superb as The Dane.

  5. Paul S says:

    I blind bought Miller’s Crossing on DVD last week and really enjoyed it. Maybe it is unrealistic, but for me it was refreshing to watch a film that wasn’t filled with graphic violence. swearing and sex scenes. I’m definitely looking forward to a second viewing.

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