Movie of the Week: Miller’s Crossing (1990)

The Coen Brothers direct Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney and Jon Polito in this gangster drama where Leo, the political influencer in a bootlegging town, finds himself at war with the Italians against the advice of his smarter, younger second, Tom.

Pre-teen Bobby Carroll. I was too young to unravel Miller’s Crossing when I rented it on video. I knew it was good… powerful and mythic… but I couldn’t fathom what I had just watched. Every exchange of dialogue felt like a puzzle, every scene tightwalked in tone between gritty, dense mystery and earthy dream sequence. You could tell the pastiche noir was about more than it was letting on, get lost in that period accurate lingo and see every twist and turn layed out in front of you like a never-ending deck of cards so you pretty early on could not keep up.

So I watched it again the next day before returning it to Selecta Video. Possibly missed church to wander around that distinct corkscrew verbiage and its “Mister Inside-Out-ski” narrative one more time. Even the Coen Brothers got bamboozled by all the threads they started here and at midway point of creating a first draft took a three week break to bang out the script for Barton Fink to clear their minds and steady their typewriting hands. You need obsessions like this when you are young. Films or book you explore until you know every shot, every word. Creatives you support like a football team or a flag. Miller’s Crossing and The Coen Brothers were mine. I listened to Carter Burwell’s mournful Irish lullaby of a score on repeat. I bought the screenplay and picked over the words. I even thought for a little while Gab Byrne was my favourite actor!

He’s wonderful here as the hollowed out soul who plays all the angles against each other. Smartest guy in the room but only just one thought or lie or scam ahead of the deadlier criminals who surround him. They don’t need to triple cross like him, they’ll just take you out into the forest and put one in the head. He spends much of the movie as a punching bag, eating boot or bleeding on the floor… the passion of the yegg. And the whole cast of shopworn faces is fantastic… Finney, Polito, John Turturro, Marcia Gay Harden, Steve Buscemi and J.E. Freeman all breathe life into their off-kilter stereotypes. They relish the old school bandiage and the hinge-like natures of their well attired hustlers and blowhards. Impeccably dressed and gloriously filmed through a haze of whisky soaked sepia by Barry Sonnenfeld. Who wouldn’t want to be playing in this? Every set-up you get your hands on a clanking revolver or a hellraising line! Every varnished surface and polished car looks fabulous. What a world to be invited into. A loving parody of the days of Bogart, Cagney and Robinson.

For a film where the talk does a lot of the walk, there are half a dozen eruptions of perfectly orchestrated action too. Finney’s Leo survives a hit through a good sense of smell and some artistry with a Tommy Gun to the strains of Danny Boy. You can see the meticulously planned storyboards come to life. The Coens design their violence like domino rallies allowing chaos and unpredictability to enter what would in other, lesser films just be a loud exchange of bullets. A bar being obliterated in a hail of lead takes on balletic grace under their playful yet dictatorial hands. Their violence is lethal yet slapsticky, cartoonish only in that you chuckle at the neat nastiness unleashed by the human puppets they pull around gracefully and determinedly.

So dozens on dozens of watches later… have I figured what Miller’s Crossing is all about? What does the metaphorical hat blowing in the wind mean? Why did my brain latch on to it so fanatically? It is no longer my favourite film but will always live beloved in my top 10. Is it about friendship lost? I’d like to think so. But as you experience more of the world you can’t discount the queer reading too. Maybe it is all about heart. Heart making the man. Byrne’s sharp, cold Tom is often told how heartless he is… the intellectual in a world of violent men driven by emotional swings. When his best friend Leo walks away through the woods at the end, matching the dream shot of his fedora blowing away, his last truly human relationship is disappearing off screen. What is Tom without the trust and love of his friend? A mouth nobody listens to. A gun for hire who avoids killing. A man who held himself to a higher standard who now has blood on his hands. Jon Polito’s snarling Jonny Caspar starts the film telling us its about “loyalty! Ethics!”. What is Tom now he has neither and no one?


Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here


  1. Paul. Writer and Filmmaker · July 17, 2020

    “Now, if you can’t trust a fix, what can you trust? For a good return, you gotta go bettin’ on chance – and then you’re back with anarchy, right back in the jungle.” Great review of a brilliant film.


  2. Bobby Carroll · July 17, 2020

    What is in it for Bernie to even take that bet once the fix is in, unless to profit on the information of the fix?!


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