Criterion Review: MILLER’S CROSSING

The Coen Brother’s gangster noir captivates on Criterion.


A Roaring Twenties gangster saga that only the Coen Brothers could concoct, Miller’s Crossing marries the hard-boiled sensibility of classic noir fiction with the filmmakers’ trademark savory dialogue, colorful characters, and finely calibrated set pieces. Gabriel Byrne brings a wry gravitas to the role of Tom Reagan, the quick-thinking right-hand man to a powerful crime boss (Albert Finney). Tom’s unflappable cool is tested when he begins offering his services to a rival outfit, setting off a cascade of betrayals, reprisals, and increasingly berserk violence. The Hopperesque visuals of cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, majestically elegiac score by Carter Burwell, and vivid supporting performances from John Turturro and Marcia Gay Harden come together in a slice of pulp perfection that crackles with sardonic wit while plumbing existential questions about free will and our own terrifying capacity for evil.

After the one-two punch of the sharp and stylish Blood Simple (1984) and the furiously farcical Raising Arizona (1987), the Coens again look to satiate their ever enduring need for noir with Miller’s Crossing (1990), a film that in many ways seems to straddle the two that preceded it. On the one hand, it’s an often bleak, pulpy, gangster thriller. On the other, it’s tinged with quirkier elements, largely in the form of the characters and the lyrical dialogue so typical of Coen ventures. These players are all part of the swell of power and politics in the titular town of Miller’s Crossing. At the center is Tom Reagan, a fixer for crime boss Leo, who is on a collision course with Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito). Growing in influence, Caspar looks to flex his own muscles by taking out one Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), a man who has clumsily disrupted Caspar’s efforts to fix some local boxing matches. Beyond paying protection money to Leo, Bernie’s sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) also has an arrangement with the boss. A refusal to allow the hit puts Leo and Caspar at odds, and as the situation escalates and complicates, Tom gets swept up in the fallout.

Byrne broods as a man forced into the limelight when he is used to operating in the shadows. Much of the film’s allure comes from watching him shift to ensure his survival. While his loyalties change in response to circumstance, there is clearly a sense of honor among thieves that renders him as a stark contrast to the other, more nefarious characters. The twists and turns of the plot are matched by equally evasive dialogue and the characters’ behavior. Joe is especially something of an enigma at times, putting the onus on the viewer to interpret his motives and actions. The film builds a narrative that is heavier and less flowing than the Coens’ other efforts, crafting a piece that needs deciphering. Despite this, there are aspects of the film that set a benchmark for any of the Coen Bros. output that follows. The score from Carter Burwell, rooted in Irish heritage, is remarkably considered and effective. The cast chews dialogue with gusto, and are decorated accordingly thanks to some outstanding work from Richard Hornung’s costume department. The whole production drips with period detail, illuminated by sumptuous cinematography from Barry Sonnenfeld.

The Package

Criterion’s release offers up a transfer stemming from a 2K digital restoration, one approved by the film’s director of photography Sonnenfeld as well as Joel and Ethan Coen. Detail and depth of image are top notch. Blacks, contrast, and brightness all befit superb picture quality in both light and dark sequences. Colors are robust, with the film tending toward a befitting autumnal palette. Extra features are impressive, particularly in terms of the new featurettes commissioned specifically for this release:

  • Hard-Boiled — New conversation between author Megan Abbott and the Coens about film noir and hard-boiled crime fiction: New for this release, the Coen Brothers discuss their reverence for film noir and how it threads through their work. Some nice insights and perspectives for Miller’s Crossing and beyond.
  • The Actors — New interview with actors Gabriel Byrne and John Turturro, moderated by Abbott: Reflections on filming the movie from the pair in another new Criterion featurette. It’s nice to hear some personal takes on the movie’s themes, as well as tales from the set.
  • The Design — New featurette with production designer Dennis Gassner: A bit of background on his career and how itled to working with the Coens. His decisions about the film’s “look” are particularly revealing.
  • The Look — New featurette with director of photography Barry Sonnenfeld: Discusses the evolution of his career, his professional relationship with the Coen Brothers, and the unique stylistic appearance of Miller’s Crossing, which is apparently his favorite of all the films he has lensed over the years. The program was produced for Criterion in 2021. In English, not subtitled. (16 min)
  • The Music — New interview with composer Burwell and music editor Todd Kasow: They recall how they became involved with Miller’s Crossing and discuss the important role music has in the film and how it actually complements the Coen Brothers’ style. The program was produced for Criterion in 2021. In English, not subtitled. (17 min)
  • Interviews from 1990 with Byrne, Turturro, and actors Marcia Gay Harden and Jon Polito: Archival interviews with some of the key players from the film from around the time of the original release. They skirt around anything truly revealing; the interviews were clearly intended to serve as promotional materials.
  • PLUS: An essay by film critic Glenn Kenny: In the liner notes booklet, which also contains info on the film’s restoration.
  • New cover illustration by Patrick Leger

One thing to mention concerning the release is that this version of the film is a slightly different cut to what has been available previously. Most notably, the scene in the woods with John Turturro’s character begging for his life has a few emotional seconds trimmed. Apparently this cut was made by the Coens as they collaborated with Criterion. No context or reasoning is provided for the cut within any of the materials on the release.

The Bottom Line

While it might lack some of the flow and deft touch synonymous with some Coen ventures, Miller’s Crossing is an undeniably rich work, with captivating performances and an engrossing, ever-shifting narrative. Criterion’s release offers a handsome transfer along with a nice collection of extras. This release is the best way you can see Albert Finney letting rip on some miscreants who dare to think they could take him down.

Miller’s Crossing is available via Criterion now.

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