Film Review: MILLER’S CROSSING, 1990

Tribute review as it’s Ethan Coen’s birthday today.

millers_crossing_posterMILLER’S CROSSING, 1990
Movie Reviews

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Gabriel Byrne; Marcia Gay Harden; John Turturro; Jon Polito; Albert Finney
Review by Tom Coatsworth


A gangland war erupts; one mobster falls from power as another rises; a lover’s triangle tears two friends apart. The one man owes the other — to repay him he must go undercover and join the enemy, forsaking love and friendship – he must go to Miller’s Crossing.


Oh for the days when the talented brothers Coen knew how to finish a film. With ‘Millers’ Crossing’ they hit the sweet spot — a complex tale set in Prohibition – a tale of love, betrayal and redemption; featuring a gangland war between Irish and Italian mobs, and two lover’s triangles – one straight, one gay. It springs from the Dashiell Hammett style of crime story; plays with the genre, masters it, and then transcends it altogether to become something greater.

Tom Reagan (Byrne) is right hand man to Leo’s (Albert Finney) gang leader. Tom sees all the angles. Its 1929, an Eastern city. (Filmed in New Orleans.) Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) wants to rub out Bernie Bernbaum but he needs Leo’s permission. Bernie has been tampering with the fix. Every time Caspar fixes a fight the odds go straight to hell – this on account Bernie (John Turturro) has the inside scoop from Mink – Eddie Dane’s boy – and the Dane works for Caspar. Love triangle number two.

For Tom it’s simple: Leo should let Johnny bump off Bernie. Johnny’s too valuable for business and too strong to ignore, whereas Bernie is a worthless grifter who will bring no good to anyone. The catch is Leo is seeing Verna (Harden), Bernie’s sister. The double catch is that Tom is also bedding Verna on the sly: love triangle number one. But he won’t let bedroom politics interfere with business. Leo tells Johnny to dangle – he’s not selling out Verna’s brother.

Writers generally introduce their theme in Act 1. The Coen’s tell us on page one, line one, in Johnny Caspars’ ironic speech to Leo: ‘friendship, character, ethics’. It’s funny that a mobster is concerned with ethics and character when it comes to the fix and laying a bet, but that is the central issue in the film. Tom can barely live with himself for betraying his friend and boss. His desire to make good is the driving force in the narrative. But he’s a complicated character, expertly played by Byrne, and you’re never quite sure what his motivation is.

So Leo puts a tail on Verna for protection. The man winds up dead in an alley; Leo blames Johnny and orders a police crack down — a huge mob war ensues. In a remarkable sequence that took weeks to shoot we see Leo at home enjoying a cigar in bed while ‘Danny Boy’ plays on the phonograph. Downstairs his bodyguard lies dead, his fallen cigarette starts a fire. Two thugs with Tommie guns and trench coats move ominously up the stairs. Cut to Leo enjoying the tune and his stogy – but something catches his eye – smoke rising through the floor boards.

He moves to the side of the bed. Cut to the assassins walking down the hall. Leo watches the door, puts out his stogy. The door bursts open, Leo reaches for his bedside pistol and hits the deck, ducking beneath the bed — a spray of bullets splintering floorboards. Leo caps one in the ankle; the man falls, catching another bullet in the brain. The other punk flees. Leo has a Tommie gun now – he jumps from the second story window and as the house goes up in flames he makes the bad guy do a little dance as he pumps him full of lead. (It is completely gratuitous violence and we are bad bad children for enjoying it.)

Suddenly a getaway car bursts from the shadows spewing machine gun fire. Leo turns with authority and takes out the car; it hits a tree, bursts into flames. Leo brings the stogy from his pocket and plants it in his mouth as ‘Danny Boy’ finishes — astonishing.

His victory is short lived however as the momentum and power move to Caspar. Tom tries to get Leo to see the truth of his situation – that Bernie is the heart of the problem and not Caspar. But Leo is blinded by love and wants to marry Verna; so Tom comes clean and admits to the affair. Leo throws Tom and Verna out of his life and she ends up at Toms. There is some talk of going away together but Tom makes a grim decision.

Caspar is king now. Tom goes to his office, offering his smarts – despite a weakness for booze and horses he’s the wisest guy in a town full of wise guys. So Caspar takes him on if he’ll sell out Bernie and Tom goes for it. But he doesn’t expect to find himself at Miller’s Crossing, a dark forest where the weak go to die, a gun in his hand — a tearful Bernie begging for his life — with orders to put one in the brain. How far will he go to help his old friend, Leo? And what will it cost him?

Is there a finer film composer than Carter Burwell? Ummm…maybe. But you had to think about it. He’s one of the best. Every film he touches plumbs hidden depths in his hands. Marcia Gay Harden makes her film debut with a stellar performance and some of the greatest dialogue: Tom: “All in all not a bad guy — if looks, brains and personality don’t count”. Verna: “You better hope they don’t”.

Byrne is magnificent as Tom Reagan, and John Turturro makes his reputation with this one performance. Barry Sonnenfeld is cinematographer; Dennis Gassner, production design. We’ve come to expect exceptional writing from the brothers but this is just ridiculously good writing.

The Coen’s will sort out their performance problems one day; I envision a late return to form. In the meantime we have this early masterpiece – completely ignored at the 1991 Oscars – it stands today with the very finest films of that decade, indeed of any decade.


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