Starring Gabriel Byrne and John Turturro
Tom: What’s the rumpus?
MILLER’S CROSSING, the third film in the now ubiquitous Coen Brothers’ film canon, continues their pattern of alternating genres, but stands uniquely as a masterpiece. Both an homage to the works of Dashiell Hammett and Depression-era gangster films, the Coens toy with neo-noir tropes, add their personal spin and make it distinctively their own.
Borrowing heavily from Hammett’s novel ‘The Glass Key’, the film centres on hardboiled, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), who spends the entirety of the film rotating between getting battered and manipulating those around him. The film opens with him working behind (both literally and figuratively) mob boss, Leo (Albert Finney), who is given the ultimatum by rival kingpin, Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), of either agreeing to kill bookie, Bernie (John Turturro), or enter into gang warfare. Unbeknownst to Caspar, however, is that both Tom and Leo are secretly in love with Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), Bernie’s sister. When Leo confides to Tom that he wishes to propose to Verna, Tom reveals his clandestine relationship with her and their allegiance is torn. Tom turns to Caspar and it is then that the film spins its Model A wheels and roars into gear.
Several think-pieces have been written recently about how the Coen Brothers put their rumpled male antiheroes through the proverbial wringer and delight in their abuse. In MILLER’S CROSSING, however, Byrne accepts the assault with ease, and is finally given the artistic showcase that he deserves. His Tom Reagan is a winking nod to Humphrey Bogart’s hard-drinking, debonair roles and Byrne encapsulates the essence of it in the film with such pizzazz. He effortlessly emulates the rapid fire rat-a-tat dialect of the ’30s and it is a puzzle why, with his talent and expressively majestic eyes, he never achieved leading man status (save for his exceptional turn on the short-lived HBO drama, ‘In Treatment’). Turturro, too, is heartbreaking and quite simply brilliant in his role as the snakily manipulative Bernie. His gut-wrenching scene in the titular Miller’s Crossing with Byrne’s Tom stands as one of the Coens’ most memorable scenes in their oeuvre.
With a script that makes repeated mention of friends, it is amusing to note that the film foreshadows the use of many of the Coen Brothers’ steadfast companions and collaborators. On screen, the film features Turturro, a blink and you’ll miss him Steve Buscemi, a cameo by Joel Coen’s real-life wife, Frances McDormand, and even Sam Raimi, who the Coens collaborated with early in their respective careers. Off-screen, the film is photographed by early Coen Brothers’ cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld (this film marked his final collaboration with the Coens) and scored by their longtime composer, Carter Burwell. With a keen ear one may even note that the film’s score is very similar to that of FARGO, but with more grace notes (equally in their scores and screenplays).
MILLER’S CROSSING undoubtedly marks a crossing of their own for the Coen Brothers. At an astoundingly young age, they firmly established themselves as salaciously talented writers, producers, editors and, most notably, exceptional directors. I tip my fedora in thanks to you for this and many other delightful films, Joel and Ethan Coen.
Joel and Ethan Coen: Tall Tales, a retrospective screening series, continues at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, throughout December. Visit tiff.net for more details. And don’t miss our all new feature, My 5 Favourite Coen Brothers Films!