Miller's Crossing


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Miller's Crossing
"Classic Coen Bros."

Tommy drives his floozie's brother Bernie down to the woods at Miller's Crossing with a couple of Johnny Caspar's guerrillas in the jalopy and when they get there the hoods toss Tommy a rod and tell him to take Bernie into the trees and blow his brains out. If he doesn't like it, they'll blow his brains out. He likes it.

This is classic Coen Bros, reminiscent of the murder in the ploughed field in Blood Simple, when the camera wouldn't leave things alone, a voyeuristic orgy of gut-melting opportunism, brought closer by the intimacy of Bernie's terror, in a virginal setting of autumnal purity.

Copy picture

The Coens have a view of cinema which encourages a high degree of risk, even within a populist form, such as the mobster movie, and yet guarantees touches of genius in an artifice that relies on style and detail.

The city is somewhere, the year 1929, the country America. Prohibition, corruption and protection rackets oil the wheels of local government. The mayor and police chief are in the pocket of Leo, political power broker and gang boss. Crime is autocratic ("So you want him killed?" "For starters"), controlled ("You're as big as I'll let you be and don't forget it") and racist ("What's one Hebrew more or less?").

Tommy is in with the crowd. He's Leo's confidant and lieutenant, an Irishman who watches and waits, a drinker and a thinker ("OK, let's get stinko." "Let's do something else," Verna says, loosening her blouse), capable of treachery, cruelty and duplicity, while suppressing feelings as closely as intentions.

Johnny Caspar is a fixer and small-time hoodlum. He doesn't like being pushed around by Leo and he doesn't like being double crossed by Bernie (John Turturro). Crime should be honourable, he believes, grinning like a shark. But it ain't. Which is why he has sadists, like The Dane, covering his back.

On a simple level, this is the story of Caspar's conflict with Leo and Verna's attempt to save her brother and Tommy's devious manipulation of fate. The language is a glorious goulash of pulp slang and inspirational invention, creating an underspeak of whiplash witticisms ("If I never see him again, it'll be soon enough") and gargoylese ("The last time we jawed, you gave us the high hat").

Tommy's cold, cold heart is a reminder that the romance of this era has nothing to do with romance. His treatment of Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), ostensibly Leo's moll, is cruel and selfish and the way he uses people and drops them suggests the early years of a political hyena. By comparison, Leo seems sentimental and courageous, while Caspar appears gullible and impetuous.

The plot doesn't invite scutiny. Tommy's inability to avoid being beaten up every five minutes begs the question as to why he's allowed to live so long, since he can't fight, carries no weapon, leaves his door unlocked and speaks his mind.

Gabriel Byrne is enigmatic, dark and brooding, like a war poet waiting for war, while Albert Finney suggests depths of genuine compassion beneath Leo's harsh exterior, and Jon Polito gives a performance of comic brilliance as Caspar.

There are moments when the film feels like downtown Gotham City and others when it shivers with surprise. One such is the time when Tommy is taken into an empty warehouse to be ritually gone over by one of Caspar's heavies. The big guy lays his jacket and hat on the side and advances quietly towards his victim, who picks up a chair and smashes him in the face with it. The thug stands there, bleeding and blubbering, before stumbling out, like a schoolboy in tears, to return with a small old man who cracks Tommy in the mouth with the speed of a prize fighter.

The failure is Tommy. "Nobody knows anyone," he tells Leo. "Not that well." It matters, since he is the protagonist. Knowing him not that well leaves a hole at the centre. The Coens's signiture is the look, the sound, the season, almost the smell of it, this tight parodic dance ("Take your flunky and dangle") through memories of Dashiell Hammett, across wide dark rooms with stained floorboards, in the company of men who ask, "If you can't trust a fix, what can you trust?", witnessed by hoodlums in hats and fortified on bootleg rye

Reviewed on: 02 Nov 2003
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Miller's Crossing packshot
Moral ambiguity in the mob.
Amazon link

Director: Joel Coen

Writer: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Jon Polito, J E Freeman, Mike Starr, Al Mancini, Richard Woods, Steve Buscemi

Year: 1990

Runtime: 115 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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