The Coen Brothers’ MILLER’S CROSSING (1990)

Notable Festivals: San Sebastian (Best Director)

The Coens’ third feature film, MILLER’S CROSSING, would up the ante in nearly every department to become their most ambitious film to date. Their infamously labyrinthine gangland tale about shifting loyalties and reckless violence pulled inspiration from a variety of sources like Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (1961), Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), and the Dashiel Hammett novels “Red Harvest” and “The Glass Key” (Hammett, if you’ll remember, was the writer who coined the phrase “blood simple”, which the Coens appropriated as the title for their debut feature). Indeed, the plot is so complicated that during the scripting process, Joel and Ethan managed to write themselves into a corner. To break through their writer’s block, they did what so many writers find it unbearable to do: they walked away. They embarked instead on a diversionary project called “Barton Fink”, which we’ll get back to in a moment. This action served as something of a palette cleanser, allowing Joel and Ethan to return to the writing of MILLER’S CROSSING with a fresh eye.

Joel and Ethan also produced the film, which shot in New Orleans on a $10­14 million dollar budget. MILLER’S CROSSING is set in an unspecified American city circa 1929, and the Coens specifically chose New Orleans for its untouched Jazz­age architecture. Mirroring the dark, subtly­humorous tone of BLOOD SIMPLE., MILLER’S CROSSING derives a great deal of sly comedy from the over­serious and impassioned performances of its cast. Gabriel Byrne plays the primary antagonist Tom Reagan, a brutish enforcer to Albert Finney’s Irish mob boss Leo O’Bannon. His unconventional Everyman physicality makes for an ambiguous hero­­ his dark eyes cloud his intentions, and we can never quite tell if he’s angry, sad, or drunk (most of the time it’s a combination of the three). Leo’s existing friendship with Reagan makes for a compellingly conflicted antagonist­­ a tough, lively son of a bitch who’s given a real chance to shine during a masterfully­ orchestrated home invasion sequence. To add to their already­-conflicted business relationship, both men are romantically entangled with Marcia Gay Harden’s slinky femme fatale character, Verna Bernbaum.

Like their cinematic peers Paul Thomas Anderson or Wes Anderson, part of the Coens’ distinct directorial stamp is the continuing cultivation of a small repertory of performers. This electric group already included Joel’s wife, Frances McDormand, who makes a small cameo here as the Mayor’s secretary, and John Goodman, who played a supporting role in their previous film RAISING ARIZONA (1987). MILLER’S CROSSING is notable within Joel and Ethan’s filmography in that it marks the addition of three new faces into this select group: John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, and Jon Polito. In finding the inspiration for Verna’s oily, neurotic brother, Bernie Bernbaum, Turturro reportedly looked to cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld. His role is fairly small here, but his performance garnered some of the highest praise of his career, and set the stage for his starring turn in the Coens next project. Buscemi’s role is even smaller, amounting to little more than a cameo, but the combination of his unmistakable facial features and motormouth dialogue delivery makes for an appearance that lingers in the mind. As rival Italian crime boss Johnny Caspar, Polito is one of the most dynamic presences in the film, delivering an in­your­face performance that all but leaves spit on the lens. Finally, the Coens’ filmmaking mentor and colleague Sam Raimi appears as a fresh­faced lawman who can wield dual pistols with proficiency

For their third and final collaboration, the Coens and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld have created a darkly handsome 35mm film image. The 1.85:1 aspect ratio frame is filled with evocative lighting, moody contrast, and natural colors that draw from a tobacco palette of earth tones. Being a film with Irish protagonists, the color green is extremely prominent throughout (appearing in the opening titles, wall sconces, desk lamps etc.). While the camerawork of their previous film resembled a zany Tex Avery cartoon, the Coens and Sonnenfeld shoot MILLER’S CROSSINGrelatively sedately, with glacially­paced dolly moves that echo common techniques of cinema from the era. Despite the austere nature of the film’s cinematography, the Coens still incorporate select bursts of kinetic playfulness, like handheld camerawork during a fistfight, or the Sam Raimi­patented camera POV move that flies towards its subject at breakneck speed. Dennis Gassner, a recurring production designer for the Coens who makes his first contribution to their filmography here, fills the frame with authentic period detail that never feels out of place or anachronistic. Little touches, like period­appropriate fedora hats, are given an unusual amount of attention– indeed, closeups of Reagan’s fedora hat become something of a prominent visual motif throughout the film. RAISING ARIZONA’s editor, Michael R. Miller, returns to bring a punchy rhythm and pace to an otherwise slow­moving presentation. While the phrase “Miller’s Crossing” understandably refers to the woods in which these gangland executions are carried out, an obscure piece of Coen trivia maintains that the title also refers to Michael Miller himself. There doesn’t appear to be a particular reason why, but it adds yet another in­joke to a long line of sly references the Coens have packed into their body of work.

For the score, the Coens bring back Carter Burwell, who fashions a waltzy, whimsical score that reflects the Irish heritage of the film’s characters while also bestowing a sense of place and time to the proceedings. A number of Irish folks songs also make an appearance, with “Danny Boy” being a musical highlight that pulls double duty as as an ironic counterpoint and a bombastic directorial flourish during the aforementioned home invasion sequence with Albert Finney’s character.

As they did in their two previous films, The Coens subvert our genre expectations at every turn, imbuing a somber gangland narrative with touches of cartoonish absurdity. Gunfire erupts with the staccato urgency of a Sam Peckinpah film and the bottomless magazines of an arcade shooter, while the characters walk around with an almost­meta sense of self awareness. Even the opening sequence plays like a bizarro alternate reality where Francis Ford Coppola lost out the director’s chair on THE GODFATHER (1972) to Billy Wilder. The film’s narrative structure reinforces the Coens’ predilection for positioning their common­man protagonists against their own environment, painting Byrne’s protagonists as a feared (but barely respected) mid­level enforcer who lashes out against the power systems and social values of organized crime. In what could be considered an additional nod to the growing universe of in­jokes the Coens have been cultivating, a building named the Barton Arms is prominently featured­­ no doubt named for their next film’s protagonist, whose creation helped the Brothers see MILLER’S CROSSING through to its completion.

While it may not glue you to the screen like some of their better ­known works, MILLER’S CROSSING still stands as an engaging and entertaining spin on well­trod material. The Coens are at they’re best when they’re subverting genre expectations, but it comes with a price: namely, a ceiling on box office earning potential. Most cinema­literate audiences know what to expect by now when they buy a ticket for a Coen Brothers film, but try telling that to audiences circa 1990­­ the film’s marketing promised an exciting mafia picture in the vein of THE GODFATHER or ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, but delivered something altogether different and unexpected. The fact that MILLER’S CROSSING was regarded as a box office failure upon release, then, shouldn’t come as a surprise, nor should its gradual accumulation of a distinct cult appreciation in league with other “failed” Coen pictures.


MILLER’S CROSSING is currently available on Blu Ray from Twentieth Century Fox.