Why Miller’s Crossing Is the Best Coen Brothers Movie

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Why Miller’s Crossing Is the Best Coen Brothers Movie

If you love cinema, then it’s safe to assume that you also love the Coen brothers. Like the far chattier Quentin Tarantino, who would burst onto the rapidly evolving American auteur scene a few years after the Coens’ break-out hit Raising Arizona, the Minnesota siblings spent their teen years as movie-mad sponges. They seemed to absorb every last drop of film history (both high and low) like two halves of the same thirsty and encyclopedic hive mind. During their four-decade partnership behind the camera, Joel and Ethan have tweaked and toyed with screwball comedies, neo-noirs, musicals, Horatio Alger stories, social satires, old-school Westerns, and new-school Westerns. It’s almost as if they live in mortal fear of being labeled or pigeonholed. Some of these genre experiments have worked better than others (RIP, The Ladykillers), but when it comes to which of their films stands as their greatest achievement, everyone seems to have a strong opinion. Here’s mine: it’s Miller’s Crossing, hands down.

Released on this day in 1990, Miller’s Crossing is probably the Coens’ least celebrated masterpiece. The only movie in their top tier that doesn’t get enough love. I’m not sure that I know why that is, but if I had to venture a guess, I’d say that it’s probably because its plot is too dense and Byzantine, its tough-guy and double-dealing dame patter is too rat-a-tat fast to stick, and the performances are too layered and subtle to fully register until you’ve watched it three or four times. Actually, I can’t think of another film from a major Hollywood studio over the past 30 years that asks more from its audience—yet rewards them with so much for their efforts.

Miller’s Crossing was Joel and Ethan Coen’s third feature, quickly following on the heels of their bruise-black 1984 debut Blood Simple and 1987’s hyper-caffeinated spinning-top caper Raising Arizona. The latter, which was bankrolled by 20th Century Fox (as unlikely a patron for their merry-prankster style as there was at the time), had been a surprise box-office success thanks to a pair of brilliantly calibrated turns from Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, an unrelenting, breakneck pace that felt like a Buster Keaton short unspooled at double speed, and Barry Sonnenfeld’s daredevil camera work, which seemed to throw down a top-this gauntlet in the film’s bravura 15-minute pre-opening credits sequence. At the time, the reviews for Raising Arizona were rapturous, announcing the arrival of a new American voice—not voices, it was always hard to say where Joel’s began and Ethan’s ended. Pulling in $22 million on a budget of just $6 million, Fox was only too happy to whip out its checkbook for their next film.

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But what would that next film be? The Coens weren’t exactly sure. However, they knew that they wanted it to be different…bigger…more ambitious. Neither Joel nor Ethan had a fully-formed story in mind, but they’d both become obsessed with a single image that seemed to haunt them like a waking dream: A black fedora blowing in the wind like a tumbleweed through a deserted forest carpeted with autumnal leaves. But who did the hat belong to? What was it doing there? What was the rest of the story? Those questions would torture the Coens for months as they wrestled with writer’s block despite having carte blanche from Fox.

Getting nowhere fast, the Coens put that ethereal, indelible image aside and launched headlong into another project (ironically enough about a crippling case writer’s block) called Barton Fink. They cranked out that script in three months and returned to the hat determined to break its spine. At the time, they were calling it The Big Head. Modeled after Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled novels, the Warner Bros. gangster movies of the ‘30s, and Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic French crime flick Le Doulos, the Coens soon had a finished script. They called it Miller’s Crossing, their name for the ethereal woodsy setting where that black fedora had tossed and tumbled in their brains for what seemed like an eternity.

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The plot of Miller’s Crossing would take more space than I have here to explain. But if you’ve seen Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo or its Sergio Leone-directed spaghetti Western knock-off A Fistful of Dollars, then you already know the architectural blueprint. In an unnamed Northern city (actually filmed in New Orleans), two rival crime bosses battle for influence during Prohibition. The reigning top dog is Albert Finney’s Leo O’Bannon, a gruffly charismatic Irish-American who has both the police force and the city’s political heavies sewn in his pocket. The hungry, on-the-come-up underdog is Jon Polito’s Johnny Caspar, a sweaty, short-fused Italian-American who talks a lot about “ethics”, but is quick to sic his bruised-knuckle goons on anyone who gets in his way. Standing between them and playing both sides against the middle is Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Reagan, Leo’s boozing, brooding, quick-witted consigliere who knows the result of every chess move ten steps before it happens. There’s also Leo’s girl, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), who’s also Tom’s girl, and her slippery, double-dealing brother Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro). It all sounds a lot more straight-forward than it is.

The Coen brothers have always been famous for drawing and re-drawing from a stellar home-built stable of character actors for their films. But Miller’s Crossing is really where that tradition really begins, especially with Turturro, Polito, and a pair of actors with smaller roles in the film, Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand. It’s almost as if everyone in the cast of Miller’s Crossing was so note-perfect that the constant challenge of casting was solved for the next three decades. As for Finney, he only signed onto the film two days before shooting began after the Coens’ first choice for Leo, Raising Arizona’s Trey Wilson, died from a brain hemorrhage.

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The opening scene of the film is so directly borrowed from Francis Coppola’s The Godfather that it goes beyond homage into outright theft. An immigrant visits a mob boss, hat in hand, asking for a favor. But before you can press charges, the Coens deliver the film’s now-iconic image as the opening credits appear—that black hat blowing in the wind like an ominous reverie that eludes the dreamer’s grasp. Carter Burwell’s score turns the image into pure undiluted poetry. There’s a reason why the very same theme was repurposed to sell the trailer for The Shawshank Redemption a four years later.

Miller’s Crossing

But what, you may ask, makes Miller’s Crossing better than Fargo or The Big Lebowski or No Country For Old Men or Inside Llewyn Davis? Of course, these things are all subjective. But I can’t think of another Coen brothers film with as much sheer ambition. It dares to turn a pair of traditionally streamlined genres (film noir, gangster pictures) into something so convoluted it borders on the Baroque. This isn’t a movie where characters double-cross one another, they triple- and quadruple-cross one another until your head starts to hurt. Tamping down the visual pyrotechnics of Raising Arizona, Sonnenfeld gives the film an almost-stately sepia period palette. His technique in the film’s greatest sequence, where Finney’s Leo unleashes tommy-gun justice on a pair of assassins sent to kill him while he’s at home lying in bed in his silk bathrobe listening to “Danny Boy” on the phonograph, is the single greatest Brian De Palma wind-up that De Palma never directed. Almost every actor in the film gives the best performance of their career in Miller’s Crossing, especially Turturro, Polito, and Harden, whose incestuous, “sick twist” Verna bristles with the sort of ferocious, tough-talking fatalism that would have put Gloria Grahame, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lauren Bacall out of work had the film been made in the ‘40s.

And then, of course, there’s Byrne’s Tom—a character as snake-bitten and self-destructive as any since Bogie played Rick Blaine. It isn’t just Byrne’s lyrical Irish brogue (an acting choice he had to sell the Coens on—they wanted him to speak with an American accent), it’s the scalpel-sharp Machiavellian instincts he brings to every decisive moment in the film’s plot. Tom is constantly measuring the motivations of the other characters on screen, sussing out not only what they want from him, but how they plan to get it (which is usually an upper cut to the bread basket). His hat, here’s that hat again, is his identity and the source of his power. Like Indiana Jones, when he’s wearing it, he’s in charge, the man who sees all the angles (except the curviest ones). When he’s not, chances are he’s getting the snot beat out of him by a thug named Frankie or The Dane.

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Patti Perret/20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

It’s not an understatement to say that when Miller’s Crossing arrived in theaters in the fall of 1990, it wasn’t the film that critics were expecting from the enfant terrible brothers. They saw the talent (how could they not?), but they didn’t appreciate the film’s flawless jigsaw-puzzle intricacy, which somehow all snaps into place. It also didn’t help that within a period of several weeks, a glut of other gangster pictures blasted into theaters too. The market was oversaturated with bullets, broads, and bent noses. Miller’s Crossing didn’t have the red-sauce authenticity and Copacabana showmanship of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. It didn’t have the gritty urban nihilism of Abel Ferrara’s King of New York. It wasn’t loaded with the same look-at-me Method indulgence that Sean Penn and Gary Oldman brought to State of Grace. And it certainly didn’t come with the same must-see anticipation of Coppola’s The Godfather Part III. Moviegoers’ bandwidth for the genre was only so broad. And Miller’s Crossing was almost fated to be the off-the-radar, also-ran gangster flick made by the guys who’d just turned Nic Cage into a toddler-swiping live-action Road Runner cartoon. All of which is to say, it was doomed.

Made for 14 million of Fox’s dollars, at that point the Coens’ biggest budget by far, Miller’s Crossing would eke out just $5 million at the box office before limping its way to home video. In the meantime, Vincent Canby panned the film in The New York Times, calling it “weightless” and “without much point at all.” Further down the page, he continued with this backhanded compliment: “The Coens, as students of film history, might console themselves with the knowledge that audiences were once similarly baffled by Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep.”

For the record, I adore The Big Sleep. Still, I think Canby was on to something. Sometimes the best movies, the ones we remember and re-watch over and over again, the ones we can’t get out of our heads like the dream of black hat blowing in the wind, are only appreciated after their time has passed. They’re for the ages, not the moment. They are there to be rediscovered, reevaluated, and resurrected. At least, that’s what I’d like to think will happen one day with Miller’s Crossing.

Chris Nashawaty is a writer, editor, critic, and author of books about Roger Corman & Caddyshack. 

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