Miller’s Crossing is well made, well cast and well acted film that pretty much announced the Coen Brothers as a duo to watch in the early 90s. Of course they seem to have gone on and made the most of these humble beginnings.
Set in prohibition era America, Miller’s Crossing follows three distinct parties – and the peripheral characters within their respective orbits – as they all tussle for revered and lucrative ‘Kingpin’ status in an anonymous American city. Being the Kingpin means far more than a title and a little bronze trophy, in this era and this city the Kingpin runs the town, including the Mayor, the Police Chief and the various criminal networks in the city.
Leo (Albert Finney) is the Kingpin, though as the film opens he is deemed somewhat remiss in his royal duties by making a decision that simultaneously puts him offside with up and coming gang boss Casper (Jon Polito), and more importantly shows a weakness to his loyal Lieutenant Tommy (Gabriel Byrne), Leo’s longtime confidant and right hand man. Tommy would appear on the surface to be better equipped to run the operations and make the big decisions himself, however he has his own personal weaknesses, which include gambling, drinking and…
Leo’s bad decision was made because of a woman – as bad decisions often are. The woman in question is Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), Leo’s muse, who is cocksure and aggressive. Verna is also banging Tommy behind Leo’s back (remember those weaknesses…?).
The third party in the power struggle is Bernie (John Turturro), Verna’s snivelling power hungry brother who is smart, but maybe not smart enough to know his limitations. But that doesn’t stop him from trying.
One guy wants another dead but doesn’t want to piss off the third. The other guy doesn’t want to permit a hit if it means ostracising his girl, and the third just wants to play with the big boys and carve his own fat piece of the action.
The film is filled with striking characters, aside from all those mentioned above Steve Bucscemi has a brief but memorable role as a toadying weasel who hovers around pathetically yet opportunistically, and Casper’s huge and stoic muscle – named simply The Dane for most of the film – is a fierce and daunting individual indeed even without his deadly tommy gun.
Byrne is perfect as Tommy, who plays all the angles and crosses sides, selling out and sidles up as needs be. Tommy drinks hard, gambles hard but seems to sober up quick when the situation demands. He likes no-one, but is smart enough to never burn bridges, even with those who might not appear to be of benefit to him.
Marcia Gay Harden is great as the powerful Verna, using her assets to get what she wants while still remaining vulnerable to those pesky feelings that females seem to be susceptible to. Finney is often fearsome but clearly not as invincible as he once was, and Polito a blustering, sweating, spitting revelation. I am surprised that he has never seemed to be deemed suitable by anyone other than the Coens.
Which brings us to Turturro as Bernie. Miller’s Crossing is not Turturro’s film – it’s clearly Tommy’s story – but he steals the best scene in it. Just he, Tommy and miles of unpopulated forest. He also has a few more scenes sparring with Tommy for the upper hand, I think Miller’s Crossing is a fine film from go to whoa, but after a year or so has passed, it will likely be Bernie that you remember.
While not ultra violent Miller’s Crossing has a pretty high body count for such a cerebral film. It most definitely benefits from the fine ensemble cast and the quality of the script, and while not as well known as some of the latter Coen Brothers’ films it should stand alongside Fargo and No Country for Old Men among the upper echelons of their filmography.
Final Rating 7.5 / 10. This early Coen Brothers effort might not be action packed, but the plot moves like lightning and the cast adeptly keep it from becoming confusing or stale.