The Coen brothers movie-making style often doesn’t sit well in the mainstream commercial industry with many of their efforts failing to break even. Miller’s Crossing is no exception, costing some $14 million dollars to make and returning barely a third of that outlay. Yet, for those familiar with their stylised works, and willing to pay the movie the attention it requires, Miller’s Crossing can be an engrossing tale of deception, betrayal and the dark side of the human psyche.
Shot entirely in scenic Louisiana, the story revolves around the character of Tom, played with a deft touch by the much undervalued actor Gabriel Byrne. Tom is the chief advisor to Leo, crime boss of the town that lends the movie its title. The coterie of other characters includes Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), Johnny Casper (Jon Polito) and Eddie Dane (J E Freeman).
Verna is Leo’s girl, though from almost the first scene it is revealed that the relationship between these two is a good deal more complicated than normality would suggest – a plot feature that drives much of the films consequent twists and turns. Bernie Bernbaum is Verna’s brother and a character that as much as any other displays the moral emptiness that is the prime feature of Miller’s Crossing. Johnny Casper is a rival crime lord and Eddie Dane is his principal “muscle”.
The talent displayed in the cinematography is a stand out feature of the movie and is to be expected from Barry Sonnenfield, with whom the Coen brothers have collaborated on many of their other projects. Interestingly enough, John Turturro based his character (Bernie) on Barry Sonnenfield.
Miller’s Crossing is a dark tale, and such comedy as exists within the movie can only be referred to as black comedy. Each of the characters has something to hide, some secret that is either used against them, or that they in turn use against others. While the movie revolves very tightly around Tom (he is in almost every scene), and portrays his character in perhaps the most forgiving light, he is essentially a heartless person with no moral centre.
As expressed by Freemans character, referred to simply as “The Dane”, in Miller’s Crossing, “Up is Down, Black is White”. It’s a quote that sums up nicely the atmosphere in Miller’s Crossing, where the police are barely more than the lackeys of whichever gang is in control, and the gangs themselves often operate as the arbiters of justice. These elements are quite distinctly shown throughout the movie as rivalry between Leo and Johnny erupts into an open warfare that touches all of the principal characters in profound and often devastating ways.
More than most films manage, Miller’s Crossing creates a completely enveloping ambience, a feat that draws emotional reactions from each scene. This was accomplished not only from the sophisticated script, but also from the deft character performances from all the principal actors, the previously mentioned cinematography and the stirring musical score created by Carter Burwell, another long time Coen brother collaborator.
It is perhaps the moral ambiguity and the multiple twists and turns in the plotline of the film that resulted in its poor commercial success, since to see the movie properly requires a concentrated effort rather than a casual viewing. However, if you are able to spare the movie the energy required to view it, and have any affinity at all for the Coen brothers work, then in Miller’s Crossing you’ll find a highly overlooked cinematic masterpiece.
(C) Andrew Pilz, 20th June 2004.
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