Marcia Gay Harden and Gabriel Byrne in Joel & Ethan Coen’s Miller’s Crossing

“Nothing more foolish than a man chasin’ his hat.”
– Tom Reagan, Miller’s Crossing

With Miller’s Crossing, Joel and Ethan Coen follow up the perfection of Raising Arizona by raising their game several notches in terms of writing, casting, cinematography, production design and score. The result has a slickness, a refinement and a big Hollywood feel that makes this one of their most mainstream pictures while still remaining uniquely Coen. Though it lands just short of the greatness of their best films, it is nevertheless one of their most watchable and entertaining.

One of the Coens’ more carefully crafted and complex in terms of pure narrative, Miller’s Crossing tells the story of Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), the right-hand man of Irish mobster/political boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney). When rival Italian gangster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) demands permission to erase low-level bookie Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), Leo refuses because he’s in love with Bernie’s moll of a sister, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). This ignites a mob war and it’s up to Tom, who also happens to be sleeping with Verna, to navigate the shifting allegiances and dubious moral terrain of organized crime in order to protect Leo from his enemies and from himself all the while adhering to his own rigid code of personal honor and ethics.

These are among the richest and most complex of Coen characters and they’re perfectly played by a top-notch cast. As Leo, Albert Finney is tough when it comes to business but mostly befuddled when it comes to women. In both arenas, his pride gets him into trouble. As Caspar, Jon Polito turns in his first of several great Coen performances. Like Nicolas Cage and M. Emmet Walsh before him, Polito instinctively grasps the uniquely stylized slant the Coens bring to their dialogue. In this case, it’s a hard-boiled patter in the manner of Dashiell Hammett layered on top of the trappings of a classic Hollywood gangster picture. Sweaty and red-faced, Polito spits out the dialogue like it’s natural. Meanwhile, John Turturro’s Bernie is a classic Coen low-life. Weaselly and untrustworthy, Bernie thinks only of himself and will say or do anything if it’s to his own advantage. Turturro smoothly adjusts between cocky and desperate as the landscape continuously shifts beneath him. Finally, Marcia Gay Harden brings a vulnerability to tough Verna. She can throw a fist as forcefully as a carefully worded insult, but she’s not your typical moll. Rather than greed, her motives are inspired purely by her need to protect her undeserving little brother.

Performing a constant juggling act between all of these terrific supporting characters is a sharp, stoic Gabriel Byrne as Tom Reagan. If the typical Coen creation ultimately pays for his or her bad behavior, Reagan is ironically punished for continually trying to do what’s right and decent. Though he’s a womanizer and a boozehound, he’s actually a good guy compared to his fellow gangsters. The most direct solution to his problems would be to bump off Bernie and lie about it. This would prevent a costly mob war between Leo and Caspar and it would eliminate Verna’s need for Leo so Tom could have her all to himself. While Tom is smart enough to see all the angles, he’s dumb enough to believe he can play each one to his (and Leo’s) ultimate advantage without anyone getting hurt. For his trouble he winds up with several beatings administered from all sides of the conflict and the best he can hope for in the end is the status quo. The lengths he goes to hold on to his own decency and sense of honor make the climax of the film all the more grimly ironic. Byrne is fantastic, comfortably firing off his lines while only occasionally allowing Tom to facially register the deep danger he’s really in.

Technically, Miller’s Crossing is an early Coen high point. For starters, it’s one of their best screenplays. From the sharp, witty dialogue to the intricate clockwork plot, it has a crispness and a specificity to it that is careful and studied without being overworked. The genre constraints work to the Coens’ advantage without limiting their creativity or style. Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld brings a usual visual fluidity and confidence to his last Coen picture, but he’s also at his most restrained and mature; only occasionally asserting himself with the bravura stylistic flourishes he made a habit of in Blood Simple and Raising Arizona. Giving Sonnenfeld a gorgeous and richly detailed world at which to point his camera, production designer Dennis Gassner marks his first of many Coen collaborations with a warm, period, art deco design.  Finally, Coen regular Carter Burwell comes in to his own as a film composer with his fullest, most traditional score to date and one of his most memorable overall.

If their first couple of films established Joel and Ethan Coen as unique film stylists, Miller’s Crossing proved that they were more than just the sum of their quirks. Though another of their playful genre hybrids, it opens up the scope of their ambitions and hints at some of their classics to come. Offering plenty for Coen fanatics to chew over, it goes over just as easily with those who are simply looking for a fun gangster picture to watch.

This is the third in a planned series of retrospective reviews of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen leading up to the release of True Grit on 12/25. You can read the previous review of Blood Simple here and Raising Arizona here.

Miller’s Crossing. USA 1990. Directed by Joel Coen. Screenplay by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Cinematography by Barry Sonnenfeld. Music score composed by Carter Burwell. Production design by Dennis Gassner. Edited by Michael R. Miller. Starring Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, Marcia Gay Harden, Jon Polito, John Turturro, J.E. Freeman, Danny Aiello III, Michael Badalucco, Steve Buscemi, Michael Jeter, Al Mancini, Frances McDormand, Mike Starr, Mario Todisco, Thomas Toner, Richard Woods and Lanny Flaherty. 2 hours. MPAA rated R. 4.5 stars (out of 5)

23 Responses to “Retro-Review: Miller’s Crossing (1990)”

  1. Who doesn’t love Miller’s Crossing? I think of that scene in the woods now every time I see a mob killing in other movies. Gets under your skin, you know?

  2. I’d love a helpful explanation as to what the hat motif is all about. The Coens have suggested there’s nothing to it, but it’s totally a running thing. I have a few vaguely thought out theories, but none I’d care to articulate.

    “Jesus, Tom! I was just speculatin’ about a hypothesis. I know I don’t know nothin!”

    There needs to be a whole line of Coen Quote T-Shirts and I’m not just talking about Lebowski

  3. Very nice review, Craig.

    I remember seeing Gabriel Byrne on Letterman when MC came out and Dave was fascinated by the hat (he also took great pleasure in ribbing Byrne over Ellen Barkins’ steamy love scenes in Sea of Love). Byrne told Dave that he didn’t know what the hat signified but that he was convinced it had a purpose and symbolic value to the Coens. I also remember him saying that the hat was a character itself in the film, but that might just have been sarcasm.

    One of the things I love about Tom Reagan is that he’s the ultimate tough guy by basically being the ultimate punching bag. He takes a tremendous amount of abuse simply to further his master plan and other than acting tough, he never really shows his teeth until the very end of the film. Somehow Byrne makes this complicated character work, alternating easily between tough, vulnerable, and weak when the moment calls for it but never making Tom seem inconsistent.

    Sonnenfeld’s camera work is wonderfully muted and straight-forward here. He gives in to his weakness for dramatic camera flourishes a few times, but he mostly shoots this in a fairly reserved manner most of the time. I’d have loved to see Deakins shoot this picture though, because I think the subtle differences in his technique would have really benefited the film.

    I remember seeing this the first time and being blown away by how much more mature and assured it was in comparison to their first two pictures (both of which I love). Great film.

  4. Tom takes at least four or five beatings, a near strangulation and he’s threatened with guns several times. He’s a bit of an asshole, but by comparison to his mates he’s a pretty decent guy.

    His basic decency and the lengths he goes to to hang on to it make the ending all the more grimly ironic. I meant to put that in the review, but I forgot. Maybe I’ll add it now. No one will notice.

    I remember being surprised that this movie was from the same guys who did Raising Arizona, but looking back now in the wake of Fargo and No Country, it fits like a glove.

  5. Yes, it was a bit of a surprise coming in the wake of their first two films but it’s certainly appropriate now in retrospect.

    Have you ever read the short stories this supposedly borrows from? I’ve always been curious to check them out but never got around to it.

  6. I should’ve given this more thought and included it in the review, but to me hats sort of represent the thing that makes a man a man. Not necessarily in a masculine sense (thought that’s part of it), but in a human sense.

    Caspar talks about getting “the high hat” from people above him. And he talks specifically about the difference between man and animal:
    “It’s gettin’ so a businessman can’t expect no return from a fixed fight. Now, if you can’t trust a fix, what can you trust? For a good return, you gotta go bettin’ on chance, and then you’re back with anarchy. Right back in the jungle. That’s why ethics is important– what separates us
    from the animals, the beasts of burden, the beasts of prey. Ethics.”

    And Bernie notably is lacking head cover when he’s taken out to the woods to get whacked. And he says “Tommy, you can’t do this! You don’t bump guys! You’re not like those animals back there.” and he begs Tom not to kill him like a dumb animal.

    Tom repeatedly loses his hat at low points, often when he’s getting the shit kicked out of him, but also when he wakes up to find the dame has taken it.

  7. I’ve read both The Glass Key and Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. There are many plot similarities and the Coens stick close to that hard-boiled dialogue style, but they’re going in their own direction for sure.

    Interestingly, the term “blood simple” comes from Red Harvest.

  8. Yeah, I was thinking something along the same lines for the hat but your read fits well with all the dialogue about animals. I hadn’t considered that dialogue that way before.

    In light of that read, it’s curious that the baddest tough guy of the entire picture (The Dane) is gay.

  9. “Nothing more foolish than a man chasin’ his hat.”

  10. That’s one aspect of the film that troubles me a little bit. The squirrelly or damaged characters are all gay: Dane, Mink, Bernie.

  11. Yeah, that is problematic, isn’t it? Casper is all kinds of wrong and he’s straight, if that helps at all.

    The Coens can easily be criticized for the numerous stereotypes they enjoy depicting in their films, from Fargo to Oh Brother to The Lady Killers. I admit I don’t think you can easily defend that aspect of their work.

    It doesn’t bother me much in the case of Miller’s Crossing though because we’re only told these characters are gay. They aren’t played in a stereotypical or demeaning manner. They’re just very bad people who happen to be gay, and let’s face it, no one in Miller’s Crossing short of maybe Michael Badalucco is a redeeming human being.

    But in their other films, the stereotypes are more egregious.

  12. I should add that when this came out, the “killer gay” stereotype was very prevalent (cough Basically It-Stank, Silence of the Lambs, cough cough) but thing have changed so much in the depiction of gays in film and tv over the last 20 years that it didn’t immediately register with me (and I forgot).

    I don’t want to downplay the significance of this particular stereotype because it was commonplace for decades.

  13. They never come out and say the character’s squirreliness is related to their gayness, in fact it’s tied directly into the plot complications so it’s not just set dressing either.

  14. Yes, I’d agree, although they could have made a Mink a female and accomplished the same plot machinations. Unlike those other films I mentioned though, their sexuality isn’t specifically exploited to set them apart from the other characters. I actually think it is a plot device and nothing more.

    I would think if anyone were going to take offense at the characterizations of Miller’s Crossing, it would be that the consummate grifters Bernie and Verna are Jewish. I think the Coens are playing to the time period however. All of the characters have very specific ethnicities, and their positions in the film’s strata would been fairly consistent with the time period, which was extremely prejudiced and class-oriented.

  15. I give them a free pass on all things Jewish because they’re Jews, even when it comes to the controversy with A Serious Man. In that case I think they’re mocking Judaism as a religion, and not Jewishness as a culture per se.

  16. Yeah, I definitely agree on A Serious Man. But just because someone is [insert whatever here] doesn’t mean they can’t be prejudiced against it to some extent. I’m not saying they are or that Miller’s Crossing exhibits any prejudice, just that I don’t automatically give anyone a free pass for that.

  17. MC is actually my favorite Coen Bros movie. It’s a terrific film for all the reasons presented in Craig’s excellent review and the discussion with Joel (whose commentaries about the Coens are always a pleasure to read). But what clinches the deal for me as a favorite (though I can’t truly say Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, and Fargo are inferior as each has their unique brilliance) is the elegiac tone that is coupled with both Tom as a character and the elusive symbolism of the hat – specifically Tom’s hat. For me the hat functions as a question mark. First question – what’s the deal with Tom’s hat? Second question – what kind of man takes such care in wearing a hat (he so deliberately angles his hat low down on his forehead so that his face is in partly in shadow or obscured by the rim)? His stoicism suggests that he uses the hat to hide his true nature – the machinations of his precision clockwork mind and his vulnerable heart from others. But once I think about this I can’t help but dwell on the vulnerability that must exist beneath Tom’s surface. The elegiac tone brings poignancy and depth to Tom’s internal world and suggests that the course he is on has high stakes – not just in terms of his life but also his soul. The fact that the ever stoic Tom loses his composure when facing what appears his inevitable demise, even more so because of the dream that seemed to prevision it, further humanizes him. What makes Tom’s course all the more engaging for me is that he seems as bent on convincing himself as he is the other characters that he is hardboiled, impervious to sentiment. This creates the fundamental tension between Tom’s head/need to feel invulnerable and his vulnerable heart and love for Leo and Vera. The real tragedy of the story for me isn’t that Tom’s two loves ultimately prove unworthy of the sacrifices he makes out of love and because of his adherence to a personal code of loyalty, it is that Tom sacrifices his heart (and by extension soul) for them. In the end he truly is hardboiled, he’s become a killer. ‘What heart’ he asks? It’s a sad conclusion.

  18. I agree that *spoiler* Tom getting neither the girl nor Leo in the end for all his trouble is only a grim twist on the fact that he’s already been reduced to cold-blooded killer as much out of anger as of convenience. That’s what elevates the story for me.

    It’s a near favorite of mine and there have been times when I’d have given it 5 of 5 stars, but this last time I watched it – maybe I’ve seen it too many times – it just seemed to be missing a greater resonance for me that my other favs have. It’s almost too precise and the clockwork nature at times threatens to squeeze some of the life out of it.

  19. I appreciate what you’re saying about the clockwork nature at times. For me that is nicely offset by the poignant and reflective moments.

  20. Like I said, if I hadn’t seen it so many times and recently, I might be less nit picky.

  21. I think I understand what you mean by lacking a greater resonance for you, Craig, but watching it again last night I was once again reminded of the terrible price Tom pays for his allegiance to (and love for) his friend Leo. Comparing the two grim moments that Tom holds Bernie’s life in his hands and the sad reality of that final moment playing out on Tom’s face is enough for me. In the end I think Tom feels like he has succeeded, but the price he has paid is going to weigh on him well after the end credits.

  22. This is me officially clamoring for more Coen reviews. Clamor, clamor.

    :)

  23. Thanks for pointing out the fact Barton Fink never came along. No, really. Thanks. :)

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