Saturday, March 03, 2012

Miller's Crossing

Originally Written and Posted at on 11/15/07 w/ Additional Edits.

Written, produced, and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen, Miller's Crossing is set in the Prohibition era as a gangster is playing both sides in a gang war as his role becomes confusing while he is dealing with one of his boss' girlfriend, her brother, a deadly henchman, and many more as a bloody gang war is happening. A change of pace from the duo's previous features, 1984's noir-inspired Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, the film is an eerie study of how one man can play both sides in a gang war. Starring Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, Marcia Gay Harden, J.E. Freeman, and appearances from Coen Brothers regulars John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, Jon Polito, Michael Badalucco, and Frances McDormand. Miller's Crossing is a powerful, eerie crime masterpiece from the Coen Brothers.

A dispute between mob boss Johnny Capar (Jon Polito) and Irish politician Leo O'Bannon (Albert Finney) over an upcoming fixed fight is settle until Caspar accuses one of Leo's men named Bernie Bernbaum (John Tuturro) of theft. With Leo's right-hand man Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) and Caspar's henchman Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman) looking on, the meetings with no resolution as Tom is having an affair with Leo's mistress Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) whose brother is Bernie. Still, Leo is concerned about Verna as he has tailed by a man named Rug (Salvatore H. Tornabene) as Tom tries to find Bernie as he asks Mink Larouie (Steve Buscemi) who reveals about a deal he made with Bernie about Caspar's fight fix. Realizing that Bernie is causing trouble, Tom tries to take charge but Leo wants the whole thing to die down to avoid a gang war.

Bernie visits Tom's place as he learns about Tom's money problems with a man named Lazarre as things become complicated where Tom tries to smooth things over for Caspar who wants Bernie. Tom refuses as he gets himself in trouble as a hit on O'Bannon's home fails leading Tom to be out of O'Bannon's gang as his relationship with Verna suffers. Tom decides to work for Caspar as he reveals Bernie's deal with Mink as Tom is ordered to kill Bernie with a couple of Caspar's men in Tic-Tac (Al Mancini) and Frankie (Mike Starr) watching. In the area of deep woods known as Miller's Crossing, Tom is chosen to kill Bernie as Tom makes a plan to spare him once he knows what Caspar is doing. Mink become a target as a war between Caspar and O'Bannon ensues while Tom reveals to Verna that Bernie is alive. Tom continues to play angles as he targets Dane in order to win over Caspar while he hopes to make peace with O'Bannon as he would make moves that would change everything.

Inspired by the works of Dashiell Hammett, the Coen Brothers create a gangster film that isn't reminiscent of the style of 1940s gangster films but also give an edge that is predominantly violent and complex. The real story of this film is about a double-agent who plays the right angles in order to get what he needs and what is right for him and whom he's loyal to. While the character of Tom Reagan is one filled with complex morals and ideas, he's also a man that is very stoic and do things in how to move forward. He's often said he's a smart kid throughout the entire film in how he plays his angles. Yet, it also makes him somewhat distant emotionally as a character like Verna wonders if he has a heart at all and is he a good person. It's that study in character that makes this film more than just a simple gangster picture but a real complex character-driven film that is in the tradition of film noir.

The dialogue in the film is very stylized with a language that is reminiscent of Hammett's work. It's very fast, it's very talky, and sometimes, hard to follow because of the language. Yet, with repeated viewings and maybe through subtitles, it becomes easier to understand. This is definitely an homage to the Hammett language that is never over-dramatized or undervalued. It's the dialogue and the Coens' script that works to show the complex morality of war and power through the mind and angles of Tom Reagan. The script is indeed top-notch with a wonderful structure and sequences that is true to the genre and adding new motifs to it.

Then there's the direction bythe Coen Brothers that is solid through and through. The film opens with a meeting between Caspar and O'Bannon before the opening credits even starts. It emphasizes the tone of what is to come while a lot of the acting is almost theatrical with its dialogue. There's a bit of humor in some of the scenes while some of the more violence sequences are done with great style. Notably one amazing scene that involved the song Danny Boy and Caspar's men trying to hit O'Bannon that ends up a bloodbath with O'Bannon looking like a badass with a tommy gun.

The location set in Louisiana, works for the film's tone where the's not many colors as everything is a bit tinted and gray as is the forest of Miller's Crossing. There's even some amazing compositions where Tom Reagan is standing in the middle of the forest and then a dissolve cut where Tic-Tac and Frankie are standing in the same position that Reagan was in except on the road and leaning against the car. The result is clearly some of the finest directing ever captured on cinema.

Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, in his last work for the Coens before becoming a director, creates probably his best work for the Coens following his previous contributions in Blood Simple and Raising Arizona. Sonnenfeld uses some wonderful speed close-ups to capture some of the horror while a lot of interior work with the bright lighting in the Shenandoah to the more intimate, shadowy scenes in Reagan's apartment. The exteriors, notably the Miller's Crossing scene, is beautifully shot that includes wonderful overhead shots of the trees to emphasize its eerie tone with Sonnenfeld bringing out some amazing work. Though Sonnenfeld's work as a director is often spotty, his contributions as a cinematographer should be noted despite being overshadowed by his replacement Roger Deakins.

Editor Michael R. Miller does some fascinating work with the use of fade-outs, dissolves, and other cutting styles to emphasize the old-school, 1940s editing style that is fitting to the genre while using some jump-cuts to bring energy to the film. Longtime production designer Dennis Gassner and art director Leslie McDonald does some great work in recreating the look of Prohibition speakeasies, clubs, and other places that are filled with wonderful color, floor design, and the use of old cars to bring authenticity to the period. Costume designer Richard Hornung does some great work with Marcia Gay Harden's clothes along with the suits and hats of the men that is very true to the period. Longtime sound editor Skip Lievsay does some amazing work in the sound to bring tension and suspense to some of the film's violent sequences as well as the Miller's Crossing scene.

Longtime music composer Carter Burwell brings a traditional, Irish-flavored score filled with its serene melodies with its orchestral-driven score that includes some harrowing themes. Burwell's score helps with the suspense and drama of the film that includes a soundtrack of old jazz music including the traditional classic Danny Boy in one of the film's best scenes.

The casting of the film is brilliant as it includes small but memorable appearances from Michael Jeter, Salvatore H. Tornabene, Lanny Flaherty, and Mario Todisco as a boxer named Drop. Other memorable appearances from Richard Woods as the mayor, Thomas Toner as the police chief, Al Mancini and Mike Starr as Caspar's henchmen are great while cameos/appearances from Coen Brothers associates like Frances McDormand as the mayor's secretary, Michael Badalucco as Caspar's drive, Steve Buscemi as Mink, and film director Sam Raimi as a doomed gunman are fun to watch. J.E. Freeman is great in the role of Eddie Dane, a ruthless henchman who is almost Reagan's equal while being more dangerous and cunning in his role as a henchman. Jon Polito is brilliant as the fast-talking, comical Johnny Caspar who is dangerous but full of humor as Polito brings a lot of charm to a very dangerous character.

In one of her early film appearances, Marcia Gay Harden is superb as Verna Bernbaum. In a role that could've been a typical femme fatale, Harden brings a lot of grit and beauty to the character while proving that she is tough. Harden's performance is definitely brilliant as she proves to be one of the Coen Brothers finest heroines that includes the great Marge Gunderson of Fargo. John Turturro is also brilliant as the smarmy, cowardly Bernie who proves that he can outwit many when the angles are played, even outsmarting Reagan. Yet, when he's in a position that he can't get out of, he acts like a total coward. It's a great performance from Turturro in his first of many films he appeared for the Coen Brothers.

Albert Finney is also great in his role as Leo O'Bannon, a boss who has his flaws. While he admits he isn't the smartest guy in the world but knows when he has to do power-plays and such while getting the chance to prove that he's a badass. Finney's greatest moment involves a tommy gun and it proves that he's the last guy you want to try to pull a hit on. Gabriel Byrne is amazing in his role as the stoic, emotionless Tom Reagan. Byrne, who always has some kind of charm and personality is more reserved in a performance that is truly minimalist. In a role that is traditional with most of Hammett's protagonists, he's a guy that has to be smarter than everyone, try to do what is right for him. Byrne is brilliant for his restraint and not being very emotional as it's truly one of his greatest performances.

Miller's Crossing is truly a powerful, eerie, and violent masterpiece from Joel and Ethan Coen with fantastic performances from Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, Marcia Gay Harden, and John Turturro. This film is no doubt one of the best films by the Coens along with one of the best gangster films to come out of the 1990s. Fans of film noir and crime films will no doubt enjoy the Coen Brothers take as it prove to be fun to watch and also as an eerie character study. While others might prefer their 1996 crime film Fargo which is superior in some aspects, Miller's Crossing is still an amazing film to watch from the Coen Brothers.

(C) thevoid99 2012


Chip Lary said...

I'm not often surprised by a movie, but I was surprised by the forest scene in this film. I figured I knew where things were going and I was wrong.

thevoid99 said...

"Look into your heart".

I was sort of expecting the same thing but with Coens, you get something else. That's why I still love them.

Alex Withrow said...

A masterpiece indeed, by far one of my favorite Coen brothers flicks. This movie continues to trick me to this day. Finney owning all those guys with his tommy gun? Marvelous.

thevoid99 said...

@Alex-That scene with Finney killing everyone with the tommy gun is the best scene of that movie for me.

Whenever that movie is on, I had to watch that scene. It's just so awesome. He's like "you wanna fuck with me! You motherfuckers are going to die now! That's right, don't fuck with Leo O'Bannon motherfucker!"