“I’m talkin’ about friendship. I’m talkin’ about character. I’m talkin’ about — hell, Leo, I ain’t embarrassed to use the word — I’m talkin’ about ethics.”
Those words, spoken by mid-level gangster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), are the first ones uttered in Joel and Ethan Coen’s exquisite 1990 film Miller’s Crossing, and they continue to echo throughout the ensuing two hours. Friendship, character and ethics are indeed what every character wrestles with in one form or another, but none more so than Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), the most trusted confidant and adviser to aging crime boss Leo (Albert Finney). Tom is a man struggling to maintain a grip on his own ethics as a Prohibition-era gangster, an occupation that frequently contradicts one’s having a strong sense of morals.
Johnny’s opening monologue is a plea for Leo to give him allowance to kill a conniving bookie named Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro, in one of his greatest performances), who just so happens to be the brother of Leo’s current flame, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Leo’s decision to spare Bernie’s life creates a rift that grows exponentially as the story progresses — a rift between Leo and the other crime families and a rift between Leo and Tom. To say any more would be a waste because if you’re a Coen Brothers fan, you’ve undoubtedly experienced its incredible surprises first-hand. And if you haven’t, that’s something you should rectify immediately through blind-buying this new Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection.
Miller’s Crossing’s reputation has grown considerably since bombing at the box office upon release more than 30 years ago, but rarely is it listed alongside the Coens’ finest work. But reader, I’m here to posit that not only does Miller’s Crossing deserve to be ranked alongside your Fargos and No Country for Old Mens, it may even be a smidge above them. All of the directors’ inimitable trademarks are here: the hard-nosed dialogue, the shocking bursts of violence, the off-kilter humor … they’ve never been better than they are here. And while some may regard this as second-tier Coens simply in that it appears on the surface to be a more straightforward genre exercise than most of their filmography, this movie is anything but straightforward.
The dialogue goes well beyond a mere pastiche of 1920s gangster movie quips to create a language of its own. It’s hyper-stylized, yes, but it also helps create a world in a way that recalls other films like A Clockwork Orange or Rian Johnson’s Brick. And a line like, “Tell Leo he’s not God on the throne, he’s just a cheap political boss with more hair tonic than brains” might sound overwritten if it wasn’t so beautifully spoken by Byrne, who somehow delivers a performance that makes Tom seem like both the coolest guy in the room and the most lunkheaded.
This is quintessential Coens, who continued to find ways to examine the absurdity of being a decent human in an insane world throughout the rest of their career, but never with more emotional resonance than in the saga of Tom Reagan. Thus, this Criterion reissue is more than worth it simply to experience its perfection in a new 2K remaster. As far as the special features go, there’s sadly no director’s commentary, but a handful of new interviews with the cast and the Coens regarding the film’s production and the movie’s noir influences are a welcome addition, even though they ultimately aren’t as comprehensive as a film this essential truly deserves.