Miller’s Crossing remains my choice for Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterwork. The picture showcases the brothers at their most philosophically serious without diluting their signature humor and style. Gabriel Byrne stars as Tom, the right-hand man to Prohibition-era crime boss Leo (Albert Finney). When Leo’s dame Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) – this is the kind of movie with dames – starts whispering bad advice in Leo’s ear, Tom is forced out and left with no choice but to side with rival gangster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito). The trickiness that ensues involves all sorts of double crosses, bluffs and fast, fancy talk – inspired beat for beat by the classic film noirs of the period and its signature men’s hats. (My hat theory: Tom’s symbolizes the principles he holds to, no matter what the cost.)
The Coen brothers haven’t just made a homage, however. In its consideration of honor among thieves –or, in Caspar’s words, “ethics” – the movie is a moral tale of timeless import. You’ll tie yourself in knots trying to determine who the “good guy” is here, because Miller’s Crossing is concerned with something more fundamental: whether or not the urge to have a moral code matters.
The Coens are precise filmmakers – every word and camera angle is purposefully placed – and while some critics bristle at this sort of fastidious filmmaking, I find it fascinating. When the Coens open their movie with nothing more remarkable than clinking ice cubes tumbling into a snifter, the moment grabs you because they’ve painstakingly designed it to do just that.
You might expect actors to suffocate under such controlled conditions, but the opposite usually happens in front of the Coens’ camera. In Miller’s Crossing, Gabriel Byrne’s inherent gloominess blooms – or maybe that should be droops – like never before, while Finney exudes a sorrowful, King Lear-like air. Harden meanwhile – like a true femme fatale – makes her sole feminine presence the equal of all the men that she twists and turns combined (and those include, in indelible supporting roles, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, and J. E. Freeman).
Despite the nihilism and violence on display, Miller’s Crossing ultimately argues in favor of drawing the line between right and wrong, even in the most corrupt of venues. Tom isn’t always noble, yet he has his own version of loyalty, honesty, and self-sacrifice. This is a tragedy, so you can imagine where that gets him in the end. His victory is that he gets there on his own terms. He hangs onto his hat.