Blu-ray Review: Miller's Crossing [Criterion] | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, May 25th, 2022  

Miller’s Crossing

Studio: The Criterion Collection

May 13, 2022 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

It’s a testament to how dense Miller’s Crossing is as a narrative, that writers/directors Joel and Ethan Coen were so stumped by its twists, turns and reversals, that they wrote the entire script for their subsequent film - the heady, psychological thriller-as-farce Barton Fink - during a three-week bout of writer’s block. Which is pretty ironic considering the titular protagonist of Barton Fink spends the film suffering from writer’s block.

A riff on the Dashiell Hammett 1929 novel Red Harvest, Miller’s Crossing is one of the more faithful adaptations of the work. Its broad outline - in which a hard-bitten outsider becomes involved in a gang war in which he plays both sides against each other - has functioned as direct inspiration for number of classic films over the last century, including the Kurosawa samurai film Yojimbo, Clint Eastwood’s breakthrough spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars and Rian Johnson’s debut film Brick, which transposes the action to a California high school. Miller’s Crossing is the most faithful of the adaptations in terms of its setting - an unnamed American city during Prohibition - and remains thematically similar in its depiction of an emotionally closed-off crusader playing both sides of a gang war against each other. Our (anti-)hero in this version is Tom Reagan, advisor to Leo O’Bannion, an Irish mob boss at war with an Italian upstart played by Jon Polito. But when it comes to light that Tom and Leo are both sleeping with the same woman, Tom switches sides. Or does he?

The twisty plotting of Miller’s Crossing is almost intentionally obscurant, with numerous important characters only dropping in for single scenes and events that would be centerpieces in a more traditional mob movie happening entirely off-screen. With only a handful of exceptions, the film’s perspective is confined to Tom’s point of view. Played with guarded determination by Gabriel Byrne, Tom exists in the same Coen brothers lineage as Lewellyn Moss from No Country for Old Men and Ed Crane from The Man Who Wasn’t There; soft-spoken, cerebral loners who are alternately ten steps ahead of everyone else and completely in over their heads. Surrounding Tom is an all-time great Coen Brothers cast of characters, including Jon Polito’s perpetually apoplectic Johnny Casper, Albert Finney’s boisterous but easily bruised Leo O’Bannion and John Turturro’s scene-stealing Bernie Bernbaum, an amoral motormouth and possibly the most memorable performance of Turturro’s storied career. A twenty-car pileup of triple crosses and betrayals, the plot of Miller’s Crossing reinforces Tom’s personal ethos of “No one really knows anyone” at every turn.

The new Blu-ray release from Criterion sharpens Barry Sonnenfeld’s gorgeous cinematography and Carter Burwell’s delicate, Celtic-inflected score to diamonds. Extras include new and old interviews with the cast and crew as well as a new interview with the Coens conducted by author Megan Abbott regarding the influence of hard-boiled crime fiction on their work.



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