‘Miller’s Crossing: Special Edition’ is a Coen brothers film that needs to be viewed more than once

Gabriel Byrne (left) and John Turturro take a walk in the woods in 'Miller’s Crossing'
Gabriel Byrne (left) and John Turturro take a walk in the woods in ‘Miller’s Crossing’

When Miller’s Crossing opened the New York Film Festival in 1990 it was going to be the film that would see the Coens hit the big time at last and simultaneously make Gabriel Byrne an international superstar. Somehow this didn’t happen, and I’m at a loss to explain why.

Byrne is execellent here, in a film that is on one level a character study of a complex, conflicted man he delivers undoubtedly his best ever performance — and that includes The Usual Suspects. His portrayal of Tom Regan as a man who keeps his cards close to his chest has everything. It is a charismatic, enigmatic performance and should have been the start of great things for the Dubliner. Unfortunately some logic-defying career choices (Ghost Ship anyone?) mean this will probably remain the high point of what should have been a magnificent career. Seeing this film again leaves me wishing a court order could be garnted, relieving Mr. Byrne of the right to choose his own roles.

In a different way this is arguably still the Coen brothers finest film. While Barton Fink won them the Palme D’Or in 1991 and Fargo sold a lot of cinema tickets this matches or betters them both in all aspects. Miller’s Crossing is funny, very funny. The dialogue is sharper than a brand new razor, some of the banter between Byrne and Marcia Gay Harden is (and I’m not joking) comparable to Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep. The labyrinthine plot unravels via some lyrical camerawork and quite beautiful editing but the Coens technical accomplishments never intrude on a movie that despite it’s humour is consistently sombre, contemplative and eventually mournful.

There are also several standout scenes. John Turturro pleading for his life in the woods springs to mind as well as what could be called the films showpiece in which a pyjama clad Albert Finney guns down several would be assassins while “Danny Boy” plays on the soundtrack.

So, if this film is so good (and it is) then why did it fail so miserably at the box office? Well, it was released at the same time as the equally magnificent and much more high-tempo Goodfellas and the not so magnificent The Godfather: Part Three which despite being a dog of a movie was a “must see” film. It seems that Miller’s Crossing was buried under other gangster films at the box office. Yet it is so much more than just a gangster film. It’s a film about male friendship, loyalty, self knowledge and a whole bunch of other stuff. Not least of which is hats. As it is Miller’s Crossing is like a best kept secret amongst film buffs. A beautifully photographed, funny, serious film that makes a viewer think about what they’re watching but never without entertaining.

Unfortuantely as with many Coen brothers films there is so much going on that it is very difficult to get to grips with on first viewing. A second viewing allows appreciation of various mirrored events and complex but tightly plotted narrative. I would even suggest that a second viewing should be mandatory, although I confess that the legal aspects of this would be difficult to impose and (arguably) the police have more important things to be doing.

Fortunately for the police force Miller’s Crossing is now available on DVD, and I can’t help noticing that in my country (England) the DVD is being promoted quite aggressively. Miller’s Crossing is the DVD you win in most magazine competitions, it’s advertised on billboards and on television. Whether this will lead to a kind of Miller’s Crossing renaissance remains to be seen.

This fine film is now available to own on DVD, but don’t be fooled by the Miller’s Crossing: Special Edition label. It’s a pretty standard package, with some informative yet short interviews with Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden and John Torturro. There’s also an featurette interview with Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld that is intermittently interesting, although frustrating in being a mix of production details, analysis and mindless chatter. It’s also difficult not to dislike Sonnenfeld purely on the basis that he isn’t a Coen brother. And possibly because of his silly leather coat. Matters of fashion aside, the main reason the “special edition” tag is so dubious is the lack of a directors commentary.

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