[box cover]

Miller's Crossing

Fans pressed to pick a favorite film from the Coen Brothers' unique filmography almost invariably opt for their hilariously wacky 1987 breakthrough hit Raising Arizona or their brilliant mainstream success Fargo (1996). Still, a few who fancy themselves as hip iconoclasts will opt for the challenging chaos of The Big Lebowksi. However, while it's failed to receive the attention of the Coens' other movies, their densely packed 1990 mob-ish comic thriller Miller's Crossing has earned a particularly devout sect of worshippers who will, without a second thought, list as the very best of an excellent bunch, and even go so far as to call it, unashamedly, as close to perfect as movie can get. Gabriel Byrne stars as Tom Reagan, the cool left hand to dominating prohibition-era gangland boss Leo (Albert Finney). From his silent perch behind Leo's shoulder, Tom straightforwardly tempers Leo's influential emotions with a studied playing of the angles. But Leo's heart won't listen to reason when his love for Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) runs him afoul of a blustery underboss (Jon Polito), and Tom plays a dangerous game of the odds to suss it out. The relentlessly thick and rich plot machinations are the least of Miller's Crossing's merits (and so rapid-fire, they can take multiple viewings to decode; blink and you might miss a fast-talking Steve Buscemi in a crucial role). The period-genre milieu gives the Coens meaty grist for their playful style. Every terse line of dialogue is funny and sharp, sending up the tough-talking conventions of Dashiel Hammet and Raymond Chandler pulp, while also efficiently zagging the tricky narrative through a maze of penetrating twists. The performances all around are sublime, especially Byrne, who's never been better than as the quiet Reagan, priding himself in his brutal and blunt rationality, and severely tested when his emotions inopportunely muck up his carefully plotted plans. Harden is excellent as the tough Verna, and Polito has some showstopping scenes. But the most stunning gem in Miller's Crossing is John Turturro as Verna's sniveling and unscrupulous brother, Bernie. Turturro has made a fine career playing eccentrics, but Bernie Birnbaum is the most delightful, the most contorted, the most despicable, and the most explosive. It's the role he was meant to play, and Turturro's career has seemed to wane since this peak of his golden period. Also unforgettable is J.E. Freeman, who, in 1990, played two of filmdom's creepiest heavies: The Dane in Miller's Crossing and Santos in Wild at Heart. The perfection of the performances is matched by every technical detail in the film, including Barry Sonnenfeld's exquisite photography, Carter Burwell's lilting score, and Dennis Gassner's rich production design. Miller's Crossing barely registered with the moviegoing public, only grossing a third of its $15 million budget — a big drop from Raising Arizona's sleeper hit box office — and neither did it earn the press coverage showered on the filmmaker's two other financial flops, their Cannes Film Festival award-winner Barton Fink or their Joel Silver-financed big-budget fiasco The Hudsucker Proxy. But none of that should take away from the lean, mean moviemaking splendor of Miller's Crossing, one of the best films of the 1990s. Fox's DVD offers a decent anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and Dolby Digital 4.0 audio. The disc also includes a 15-minute reel of interviews with Sonnenfeld, plus another ten minutes of soundbites from Byrne, Harden, and Turturro, a still gallery, and a trailer. Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr



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