MILLER'S CROSSING - Coen Brother's Period Piece
The Coen Brothers are unquestionably modern legends. If you had to take a guess on which contemporary filmmakers are destined to live on in history, they’d be at the top of the list. For decades now, the Brothers have achieved the seemingly impossible: maintaining a consistent output- among which are some of the finest films of all time- with few critical misfires. What makes matters more impressive is the variety of genres their careers have covered. The notion that the directors behind No Country For Old Men also made The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona and Barton Fink seems confounding. Steven Spielberg has called them the greatest living screenwriters and their success across genre is a testament to that.
Take 1990’s Miller’s Crossing, a gangland epic done in the key of Coen, which has bizarrely flown under the radar for years despite being among the Brothers’ finest outings.
You can’t spoil the plot of Miller’s Crossing if you tried; it’s a difficult enough task trying to understand it. This isn’t a knock - if anything, it’s what makes the film a joy to watch. The Coens present to the viewer a complex, labyrinthine gangster tale with as many twists, turns, characters and plot lines as there are Tommy Gun bullets. The overarching story follows Irish mobster Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) whose boss is crime heavyweight Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney).
While a gang war occurs between O’Bannon’s crew and a rival, Reagan attempts to play both sides against one another for his own benefit. Simply put, the viewer is taken down an underworld rabbit hole where my best advice - much like Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep- is to strap in and enjoy. The complexities of the plot reveal themselves in repeat viewings.
The cinematography by frequent Coen collaborator (and future director of Men in Black) Barry Sonnenfeld captures a simultaneously worn and beautiful Prohibition-era Autumn.
The black color of the gangsters’ overcoats and machine-guns seem darker than ever before, popping against the rich oranges and yellows of New Orleans (where production occurred, the story’s city remains nameless). An arsenal of towering performances breathe life into the tough world of the film. Byrne, using his own Irish accent, never wavers in his depiction of a jaded mobster in love with his boss’s girl (Marcia Gay Harden) and who, through the magic of a Coen screenplay, always is quick with a hard-boiled quip. John Turturro plays a weasel of a bookie and is a perfect for his shifty, pathetic character. Albert Finney gives a career great turn as Leo O’Bannon… and a scene he has involving a Tommy Gun set to “Danny Boy” will never leave your memory.
As a result of the plot’s complexity, the Coens experienced writer’s block while writing the film, as they often do. Taking a break, they instead moved on to write Barton Fink in three weeks before returning to finish Miller’s Crossing. The script largely draws inspiration from the writings of famed pulp novelist Dashiell Hammett, specifically his stories The Glass Key and Red Harvest, with several lines and scenes lifted from the former. Originally, Albert Finney was not the first choice for Leo O’Bannon. The Coens had casted Trey Wilson with whom they previously worked with on Raising Arizona however, just two days before filming commenced, Wilson suffered a brain hemmorage and died. And on the subject of casting, keep your eyes out in the background for cameos by Coen friend Sam Raimi and Frances McDormand (Joel Coen’s wife).
Despite warm critical reception, the film was a box-office bomb. Costing a reported $10-$14 million dollars and grossing only $5 million, this underperformance is perhaps the tragic reason this film has faded from the mainstream spotlight. It is a movie that demands the attention of the viewer, dares to frustrate you in the short term only to reward you with the big picture, and this is why it’s proliferated in critics’ minds in the years since (in 2010, The Guardian ranked it #24 on their list of the 25 Greatest Crime Films).
I first encountered it a number of years ago as a high-school kid when I reached out to the writer of Bioshock on Twitter, asking what his influences were. He cited Miller’s Crossing and there are scenes from it I find myself thinking of constantly. I was lucky enough to have this forgotten work recommended to me then and am happily paying it forward for someone else to discover its thrills.