Joel and Ethan Coen won the Academy Award for 2007’s Best Picture (No Country For Old Men), won two Oscars and should have had the Best Picture of 1996 in retrospect (Fargo, which lost the Oscar to The English Patient), received ten Oscar nominations for the film which improved upon one of John Wayne’s best (True Grit), made the funniest films of both the 1990s (The Big Lebowski) and the 1980s (Raising Arizona), and had one of the best two or three debut films of any filmmaker in history (Blood Simple). That’s all very impressive, but my favorite Coen Brothers movie remains their 1990 film Miller’s Crossing, shown this week at Movie Klub.
The film’s plot is so complex that the Coens, facing writer’s block, wrote an entire other film (Barton Fink) in the meantime. In the broad strokes, it’s a gangster picture: Gabriel Byrne plays the hard-drinking, hard-gambling mob lieutenant Tom; Marcia Gay Harden is Verna, his tough-broad love interest; Albert Finney is Leo, the crime boss who employs Tom and loves Verna; Jon Polito is Johnny Casper, the rival boss who wants to move up to the big time; and John Turturro is Bernie, Verna’s small-time brother who gets caught in the middle.
Except that everyone is more than those descriptions. Each character expands and deepens the longer we get to spend with him or her, and all are looking to make betrayals of the others if it can get them out of the messes that they’re in. Tom seems at first to be the heartless antihero, but the first time he visits the titular crossing it is suggested that he might have a heart after all. Bernie is presented as a spineless target, but he displays more cunning and guts later on. Leo seems to be lazy and complacent in his role running the town*, but in one of the best action set pieces in movie history, he reveals himself to be much more.
The only real constant is that the movie looks fantastic. On a limited budget, the Coens developed a fantastic Prohibition-era world. It doesn’t have the visual flashiness or period detail of the Chicago in Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables, but the extra touches that make Miller’s Crossing feel equally real come from the dialogue. It may not be that people actually greeted each other in the 1930s by asking “what’s the rumpus?”, but it feels real, as does Casper’s constant complaining about getting the “high hat” or Verna’s tough-dame sassiness. It’s a combination of the things that we all expect to see in gangster movies, and things which are new but seem like they should come from old gangster movies.
The look of the film comes from the great cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who had previously worked with the Coens on Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, and would later become a very successful director in his own right (his filmography as a director includes the Men in Black films and Get Shorty). He chooses his camera angles perfectly for each scene, emphasizing the right elements for the mood. While Johnny Casper might be treated like an object of comedy in the first half of the movie, one key scene late (“Always put one in the brain!”) turns him into an object of horror, a monster whose rage was hiding under the surface the entire time, which is done completely visually.
Considering the immense writer’s block that the Coens experienced on this film — Barton Fink was written in about three weeks, which is a long time not to be thinking about one’s little gangster picture — the end of Miller’s Crossing hangs together very well indeed. In the opening scene, Tom warns Leo to think about what his decisions will cost him, and in the end he everything he said is proven to be true. Leo makes a decision in that opening scene, choosing someone else’s desires over Tom’s and Johnny’s, and this perfectly constructed gem of a movie shows him that sometimes the worst thing fate can do to us is give us exactly what we asked for.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*The city where this film takes place is never revealed, but it was shot in New Orleans.