"What's the rumpus?"
- In an unnamed American town in the earlier part of the 20th Century (it is your guess as to which one that is, because the film doesn't tell you.... those Coens), a murderous game of loyalty pins two gangs against each other. When Leo (Albert Finney), the leader of the town's Irish gang, refuses to deliver the cheating Jewish bookie, Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), over to Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), the leader of the local Italian gang, the two clash and takes the whole town into the rumble. Leo's right hand man Tom Reagan (one of the screen's greatest screen anti-heroes, played by Gabriel Byrne) is stuck in the middle of it all and more: having an affair with Leo's girl and Bernie's sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Throw in Johnny's monstrous right hand Eddie Dane (the most frightening Coen Brothers villain, played by J.E. Freeman, until Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men (2007)), another "fickle" bookie Mink Larouie (Steve Buscemi in his first Coen Brothers role), and Tom's tremendous debt and you have a dangerous Coen Brothers fracas.
Miller's Crossing (1990) is often mislabeled as an homage movie - insinuating that the Coen Brothers are merely nodding at and remaking their favorite gangster films with the film. While elements of the plot are inspired by Dashiell Hammett's "The Glass Key" and the fedoras, the trench coats, and the grimy streets are familiar for those fans of the golden age of gangster films, Miller's Crossing is also most obviously a highly original Coen Brothers film.
Plain on the nose on the viewer's face, one can easily see that the Brothers leave their unique visual and stylish cinematic John Hancock on each scene in Miller's Crossing. Just like other Coen Brothers films, the Coens surround themselves with talented people to help them create their world. Before there was Roger Deakins, there was Barry Sonnenfeld – and Miller's Crossing defines his career as a cinematographer. The Coen Brothers, with Sonnenfeld's great cinematography feat and the film's excellent art-direction team, captures the essence of the era perfectly with a sort of down-in-the-dumps picture quality melded with a rugged sense of style and class. For my money, the finest scene that the Coen Brothers have ever made can be found in Miller's Crossing: the scene featuring Tom and Bernie at Miller's Crossing.
The dialogue, while at a BPM that resembles an Edward G. Robinson gangster flick, is at the same time also most definitely signature Coen Brothers. The catch-phrases and the humorous back-and-forths are identifiably Coenesque; the dialogue is sharp, funny, and so dense that one continues to discover more gems within the dialogue after each repeat viewing.
The acting in the film is also extraordinary - most of the actors having to balance different facets at once to create their eternally likable, quite interesting, and highly entertaining characters. Leaving his British accent across the pond, Finney plays Irish-American mob boss Leo with an air of power and arrogance mixed with a personality ripe for making bone-head plays and needing guidance. Leo's artistry with the Thompson is one of the greatest scenes of the film, no small part in due to him, and he has great by-play with both Polito and Byrne too. Oily charm, odd eccentricity, and a Cheshire cat grin makes Jon Polito instantly entertaining and cinematically likable but he completely sells the idea that the spastic scruffy short stack Johnny Caspar could run a town with his pocketbook at the same time (even though Johnny does not really like all of the responsibility of such a job, either). His tantrums are hilarious - and he just looks the part, come on. Marcia Gay Harden sees her finest hour in Miller's Crossing. Her Verna character is tough and seductive, ever ready to knock a sarcastic comment back your way, but she is vulnerable and desperate too - she needs a shoulder sometimes. John Turturro's performance as Bernie Bernbaum is often talked about and rightfully so. He gives an explosive performance and conveys the duality of Bernie's personality in every scene that shows Bernie as an evil crook and every scene that exposes him as a sniveling coward.
All of the supporting performances in Miller's Crossing are incredible; in fact, lead actor Gabriel Bryne is often times the quietest actor in a scene in terms of volume. Nevertheless, Byrne's quiet performance is the most powerful in the film thanks to his presence and golden delivery of the Coens' dialogue. Byrne captures the essence of the Tom Reagan character perfectly: he puts on a strong front but is out of his league when punches are actually thrown, he fights with his brain rather than his brawn, loyalty and individual responsibility are what drive him. His subtly speaks louder than Polito's screaming, his sarcasm stings worse than Leo's punches - Byrne could not be better.
The first of many Coen Brothers period films to come, Miller's Crossing is a fantastic thrill ride with slick and intelligent writing, unique and in-depth characters, heart-stopping shots, powerful imagery, and the Coens' magnificent dark sense of humor. There is no other way to put it, Miller's Crossing is a brilliant film that holds firmly to everything that makes a film great.
CBC Rating: 10/10