Miller’s Crossing (1990)

millers crossing poster 1990 movie
8.5 Overall Score
Story: 8/10
Acting: 9/10
Visuals: 9/10

Great looking, great cast, complex story

Not a movie you can watch once and follow the twists

Movie Info

Movie Name: Miller’s Crossing

Studio: Circle Films/20th Century Fox

Genre(s): Drama/Suspense/Mystery

Release Date(s):  September 21, 1990 (New York Film Festival)/October 5, 1990 (US)

MPAA Rating: R

millers crossing gabriel byrne john tuturro woods

Only in a Coen Bros movie does a mercy “saving” backfire so badly

Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) has a comfy position as the assistant to mobster Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) who runs the town through the police and government.  Leo’s territory is being encroached upon by Italian mob boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) whose plans to hit one of Leo’s bookies that could spark a war.  Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) is the brother of Leo’s lover Verna (Marcia Gay Harden)…who happens to also be sleeping with Tom.  Tom sees that things are going to get messy and playing both sides could be his only chance at survival.

Written, directed, and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen, Miller’s Crossing is a mobster suspense thriller.  Following the Coen Bros. Raising Arizona in 187, the film premiered at the New York Film Festival and received positive reviews from critics.  The Criterion Collection released a remastered version of the film (Criterion #1112).

Coen Brother films are pretty consistent.  You go into them expecting a certain style and delivery and you generally get it.  The earlier Coen Bros. films have their signature trademarks, but they are a bit rawer and unrefined which sometimes leaves a bit more ambiguity to them…that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

millers crossing leo obannon albert finney fight scene

Don’t mess with Leo (or pretty much anyone in this movie)

Miller’s Crossing is all about ambiguity and fluidity.  Byrne’s character is playing his own game and sliding between the lines.  Even if it starts to go sidewise, the viewer isn’t sure if this is part of his plan.  There are a ton of layers to unwrap to determine what Tom is doing and whose side he’s on (if any), and one viewing probably won’t give you the answers you are seeking.  The film even ends on a somewhat questionable note if Tom’s plan was really a plan at all or sheer luck and survival ingenuity.

Gabriel Byrne is great as the slippery Tom who often comes off as ineffective and the loser, but who is really pulling the strings.  Albert Finney plays the brutish mob boss Leo who needs smart people around him while Jon Polito is solid as the conniving rival boss.  You have the rather terrifying J.E. Freeman as “The Dane” who seems to actually fall in the worst traps through the course of the film.  Marcia Gay Harden plays a femme fatale type character while John Turturro feels unthreatening at first but proves to be extremely dangerous.  The movie features lots of Coen regulars although their “stock players” weren’t entirely established at this point.

millers crossing marcia gay harden je freeman the dane

Dames…and Danes?

Visually the Coens always win.  The film is rather ambiguous to the location though it was shot in and around Louisiana it feels like it is supposed to be New Jersey-ish.  The famed woods scene is akin to the famous episode “The Pine Barrens” of The Sopranos but with a different outcome and tone.  In general, the film takes the noir style but twists it in a bit (generally classified as neo-noir which is generally almost a post-modern reflexive style).  The Coens finessed this style for later projects, but like much of the movie, it feels a bit looser here and more surprising.

Miller’s Crossing is a smart movie, but it is sometimes frustrating in its smartness.  Like many mob movies, you really need to keep track of names, plotlines, and directions and you can’t just casually watch the film.  It doesn’t lend itself to that and that could frustrate some viewers who want a snappy Coen film loaded with catchy dialogue.  The Coens followed Miller’s Crossing with Barton Fink in 1991.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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