Miller's Crossing

1990, Movie, R, 115 mins


Guns, booze, fast women--timeworn gangster film cliches given a fresh twist in this, the third offering from Joel and Ethan Coen. A gang war is brewing in the anonymous town run by Leo (Finney), a tough but sentimental Irishman, and his acerbic right-hand man, Tom Reagan (Byrne). The Italians are the new kids on the block, and they're sensitive about it. Johnny Caspar (Polito) is particularly thin-skinned, and he's mad as hell because small-time chiseler Bernie Bernbaum (Turturro) is cutting in on his gambling action. Caspar wants Bernie murdered, but Leo won't hear of it; he's promised Bernie's tough-as-nails sister, Verna (Harden), that he'll look out for her brother. Verna is the love of Leo's life, but she's also sleeping with Tom. Meanwhile, Tom, a drinker and gambler, is deeply in debt to his bookie, who's putting the screws to him. When Leo and Tom have a falling out over Verna, Tom offers his services to Caspar. Forced to prove his loyalty by killing Bernie, Tom fakes the murder, only to have Bernie turn around and attempt to blackmail him.

Surprisingly, the Coens resisted the Hollywood dictum that the protagonist must be sympathetic. Byrne's Tom is a man of principles--smart, loyal and willing to gratify his own ambitions through Leo. But he's also a drunk and a gambler. What's more, he sleeps with Verna and murders her brother. Tom has his reasons, and they're quite reasonable, but what's remarkable is that the Coens trust their audience to understand him.

While BLOOD SIMPLE paid homage to film noir, and RAISING ARIZONA put a wacky, post-modernist spin on the screwball comedy, MILLER'S CROSSING attempts to both sum up, and revivify, the gangster genre. It takes place in an artificial world constructed largely from the mythology of other movies, and, though it's both seamless and stylish, some find it a little too self-conscious for its own good. leave a comment

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The Coen Brothers Movie Collection (Fargo / Miller's Crossing / Barton Fink / Raising Arizona / Blood Simple)
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