MILLER’S CROSSING. Superb crime thriller by Coen brothers

The Coen Brothers haven’t earned the humorous nickname “two-headed director” without reason, as they share identical artistic visions regarding their projects.


15 March 2024

MILLER'S CROSSING. Superb crime thriller by Coen brothers

Known for their visually exquisite and stylistically diverse films, where they refresh clichés and freely blend genres, they are counted among the most talented and original filmmakers. They create their own specific and unique style, which is why they are close to my favorite directors, such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino (that’s why I put them on the same shelf with them).

When speaking about their work, thoughts often turn to their greatest hits, such as Fargo, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, or especially No Country for Old Men, which won four Oscars, including Best Picture. It’s a pity that the more modest works are overlooked, those that don’t have such fame or cult status but are still a piece of decent cinema. One such example is Miller’s Crossing, and another (perhaps even more so) is the underrated and forgotten Blood Simple from 1990. Yet, this crime drama can successfully be called one of the greatest classics of gangster cinema.

Miller's Crossing Gabriel Byrne

The year is 1929. The setting is an unnamed town during the harsh times of Prohibition. The main character is Tom Reagan – the right-hand man of Irish boss Leo O’Bannon, one of the most influential people in town. Tom, who enjoys Leo’s immense trust, is having an affair with his girlfriend, Verna, of which Leo is, of course, unaware. Verna, in turn, only sees Leo because of her brother – a certain Bernie Bernbaum – to ensure his immunity. Bernie is a bookie who takes bets from a certain Johnny Caspar, an Italian gangster also under Leo’s rule but with ambitions to take over the whole area. The actual plot of the film begins when Caspar, realizing that Bernie is selling information about rigged fights, demands permission to execute Bernie. Tom warns Leo that refusing would mean war. However, Leo is unwilling to comply with Caspar’s demands because of Verna. Trying to keep everything relatively calm, Tom unexpectedly finds himself in the middle of a war where nothing is as it seems.

Miller's Crossing Marcia Gay Harden

Miller’s Crossing is the third film in the Coen Brothers’ directorial career. After a rather unconventional take on comedy, as was undoubtedly Raising Arizona, the brothers return to a slightly darker style, lightly seasoned with black humor. It’s close to their debut Blood Simple, where grotesque violence mixes with raw realism loaded with tension to the brink. Their debut contained everything that is characteristic of their entire subsequent work. Miller’s Crossing is in no way inferior to it, further confirming to the viewer that they are dealing with a genius, whose nature has evenly divided him between two brothers.

Miller's Crossing Gabriel Byrne Albert Finney

The talented siblings then reached for the fairly exploited genre of gangster cinema, which still enjoys great popularity. The film is largely inspired by the work of writer Dashiell Hammett, particularly his debut novel Red Harvest. The brilliant debut of the creator of The Maltese Falcon is considered by many to be his best book. It contains everything Hammett became famous for: a small town, two gangs, a beautiful woman, and a not-so-honest detective. This exemplary crime story became a source of inspiration for such famous films as Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, or even Last Man Standing (1996) by Walter Hill. Miller’s Crossing draws heavily from Hammett’s work, thus connecting to the best of film noir themes. The Coens here reach for the traditions of black crime fiction, adding a twistedly constructed plot where even a single blink can cause the viewer to lose track. As a result, an extremely atmospheric story about the criminal underworld of prohibition times is created, where corruption and evil can be found in every corner of the human heart. However, to avoid being too pessimistic, the Coens occasionally wink at the audience, loosening up the dense atmosphere. A bit twisted, funny, and bitter, yet dark and brutal in other places. In other words, all the characteristic features of the Coen Brothers’ work are contained in Miller’s Crossing.

Miller's Crossing Gabriel Byrne John Turturro

A few words about the acting. The Coen Brothers, like Paul Thomas Anderson, like to work with proven individuals on the set. And although their films feature many well-known and, above all, good actors, there is a constant team that can be associated with the two brothers. So, just as with Anderson, we often see John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman, with the Coens, it’s John Turturro and Steve Buscemi. Miller’s Crossing is the first film in which they had the opportunity to play with the talented siblings and some of their first significant roles in their careers. Buscemi played a supporting role as the bookie Mink, where his homosexual relations with Bernbaum, played by Turturro, were suggested. His role – a deceitful Jewish bookie – has a greater impact on the plot. Just like the role of Marcia Gay Harden, who played his on-screen sister Verna, who will do anything to ensure his immunity.

Miller's Crossing Albert Finney

It’s worth noting that each of these characters is somewhat repulsive. They are ambiguous heroes, devoid of positive values and feelings. And so is the main character, Tom Reagan, played by the excellent Gabriel Byrne, who undoubtedly takes the lead here. Byrne is restrained in his role, making him appear calm and yet tired of everything around him. And although it initially seems that he is the only positive character in this film, as the action unfolds, the viewer stops having illusions about him. He is cunning, cynical, two-faced, capable of anything, and able to convince people of practically anything, yet incredibly intelligent. Gabriel Byrne with his Irish accent is undoubtedly the brightest point of Miller’s Crossing. It’s also worth mentioning Albert Finney. The actor replaced Trey Wilson, who was initially supposed to play Leo O’Bannon. The Coen Brothers saw him in this role after his performance in Raising Arizona, where he played Nathan Arizona. Unfortunately, the actor passed away shortly before production began. Finney will certainly be remembered for his brilliant scene where, defending himself against Gaspar’s men, he fires 524 rounds from a Thompson without reloading (although he should have at least 6 times!) and all this to the rhythm of classical music. Pure poetry!

Miller's Crossing Gabriel Byrne

Miller’s Crossing is the quintessence of black crime fiction. It’s an incredibly gripping tale with several surprising moments that will surely cause quite a surprise for many viewers. Brilliantly executed, both visually (thanks to the excellent cinematography by Barry Sonnenfield) and narratively. It’s undoubtedly one of the best gangster stories, with its poetics rivaling such works as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, or Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, but distinguished by the specific sense of humor of the Coen Brothers. It’s also one of the last works of this genre that was quiet for a long time. Later, the gangster film genre was successfully revived by Sam Mendes in Road to Perdition and some time ago by the brilliant Michael Mann in his Public Enemies and Lawless.

Words by Andrzej Brzezinski



We're movie lovers who write for other movie lovers!

See other posts from this author >>>