With your average gangster film you can expect criminals in suits, gunfights, and femme fatales. In the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990) you get all that, but also criminals chasing their hats, a labyrinthine plot, and of course, the inevitable death of Steve Buscemi’s character. It is very difficult to describe the style of Joel and Ethan Coen, which probably explains the creation of the word “Coenesque,” but it is a unique style that works on whatever genre they decide to crack, including the 1930s gangster genre.
My first introduction to the world of the Coen Brothers was with the cult classic The Big Lebowski, so I never know what to expect when I watch one of their more violent projects. It can be pure violence with absurdist scenes, such as with Blood Simple, or there can be brief moments of humour such as with their award-winning Fargo. I knew nothing about Miller’s Crossing when I bought the DVD a few years ago, and to this day I still have a hard time navigating the plot, but I would definitely describe it as violent with a subtle sense of humour.
Apart from being a gangster film, Miller’s Crossing clearly also belongs in the world of film noir, and like the best examples of that genre the plot is as I said a tough nut to crack. Initially it seems to focus on a run of the mill dispute between Irish mobster Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) and Italian gangster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito). Citing a question of ethics, Caspar wants Leo to kill bookie Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), but Leo refuses on account his girlfriend Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) is Bernie’s sister.
Unbeknownst to Leo, his right-hand man Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is sleeping with Verna. Despite this other clear example of a breach of ethics, Tom always places Leo’s well-being above everybody else’s, even his own. After an assassination attempt on Leo, featuring one of the great shootouts sequences involving Thompson machine guns, Tom confesses the affair to Leo in order for him to let go of the liabilities that are Verna and Bernie.
This is where things get really muddy. Ceremoniously kicked out of Leo’s nightclub, Tom is left to his own designs and for a while seems to be working for Johnny Caspar. However much like in Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars Tom seems to be working both sides. As his scheme become more and more complicated, corpses with no faces start to drop in the woods, crooked cops perform violent raids on rival crime lords’ nightclubs, and Tom suffers one beating after another at the hands of various gangsters.
The most vicious of those well-dressed violent individuals is the towering Eddie ‘The Dane’ (J.E Freeman), Caspar’s brutal enforcer who is trying to figure out what game Tom is playing, with the express intention of beating him to death once he can prove Tom can’t be trusted. In line with some of the Coen Brother’s most frightening characters such as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men and Gaear Grimsrud in Fargo, The Dane stands out due to the fact he is one of the few gangsters in the entire genre who is homosexual and makes no effort to hide it. Even more surprising, his lover is played by Steve Buscemi. I would have been really curious to see a romantic scene between those two.
There are many reasons to revisit Miller’s Crossing, chief among them trying to figure out what Tom was planning all along. For all film lovers there is also the gorgeous cinematography by Barry Sonnenfeld, the great femme fatale performance of Marcia Gay Harden, and seeing Albert Finney fire at will with a machine gun that apparently never runs out of bullets while Danny Boy is playing in the background. You can describe all this as a gangster movie, a film noir, a dark comedy, but above all it is very Coenesque.