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MILLER'S CROSSING

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Jon Polito, J.E. Freeman, Albert Finney
Director: Joel Coen
Audio: Dolby Digital 4.0, French Dolby Surround, Spanish Dolby Stereo
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: See Review
Length: 115 Minutes
Release Date: May 20, 2003

ďThink about what protecting Bernie gets us. Think about what offending Caspar gets us.Ē

ďCome on, Tom. You know I donít like to think.Ē

ďThink about whether you should start.Ē

Film ****

1990 gave us two masterpieces about the gangster underworld, Martin Scorseseís GoodFellas and the Coen Brothersí Millerís Crossing.

I always knew that the moviemaking team of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen carried with them a certain level of genius, especially in the realm of dark comedies. However, nothing couldíve ever prepared me for the much more serious-toned Millerís Crossing, which is indeed one of their greatest films to date, alongside their brilliant 1996 piece, Fargo. What is so captivating about watching this film, especially if youíre a fan of the gangster genre, is the original visionary style that the Coen Brothers has given to create the brooding atmosphere of the gangster underworld during the time of prohibition. Another stroke of genius is the individually memorable characters in this piece, who arenít entirely likeable, but are a good deal sympathetic in some regards. There are also vicious characters in the story, and if you know the Coen Brothers, you know that you will see these kinds of people in the darkest possible light.

The film centers on an ongoing war of power between two rival gangs in 1929, one Irish and one Italian, and depicts the level of loyalty that is stretched to great length by a central character. The boss of the town is Leo (Albert Finney), who has long fought a bitter battle to keep rival hood Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) from muscling in on his turf. Although Caspar is desperate to take over the rackets which Leo controls, he believes highly in ethics of business, and therefore doesnít stoop to incidents of unnecessary bloodshed, though if we were ever driven to do such, heíd have his murderous enforcer, The Dane (J.E. Freeman), to apply such pressure.

Right in the middle of the war is Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), Leoís longtime right hand man and associate. Tom is always there to negotiate or settle terms on Leoís behalf, but he is in the middle of a major predicament, which is being engaged in a love affair with Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), the same woman who Leo himself is in love with. Matters are also tense for Tom as he is frequently having to deal with Vernaís brother, Bernie (John Turturro), a weasel bookie who is cheating Tom right under his nose. He would gladly wipe out Bernie in a second, if it werenít for the love he has for his sister.

Rather than a routine movie where two gangs dual it out endlessly, Millerís Crossing is essentially a character piece, focusing mostly on that of Tom. After a sudden and brutal falling out with Leo, Tom finds himself switching sides to Casparís crew, even though The Dane doesnít trust him for a second. Tom has never killed anybody in his life, and once working for Caspar, heís put to the test when ordered to wipe out a victim at Millerís Crossing, an area in the woods where all mob killings are enforced. Itís really Tomís story, and a journey of the character to see if he has heart, or if he is no different than a natural killer for business.

Having seen the Coensí Blood Simple and Fargo, I find them to be something of pioneers in terms of movie violence, but the violence in Millerís Crossing is probably as up close and graphic as anything theyíve done. A rule in this movie addressed by both of the gangs is when you kill someone, shoot them in the head first, and trust me, they arenít lying. Such sequences in the film had my lower jaw nearly hitting the floor. It just goes to show you that the Coen Brothers are all about startling originality, and the violence in this film is unlike any of what I have seen before.

The performances in Millerís Crossing are of pure masterworks, as displayed in any Coen Brothers film. Gabriel Byrne is remarkable in his best screen performance prior to The Usual Suspects as Tom. John Turturro, a Coen Brothers regular, is on fire as the despicable Bernie. He has a scene in the woods of Millerís Crossing, where he pleads heavily not to be killed, which is a scene of dynamite acting. There are also small pop-ups from such other Coen regulars as Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand.

Bottom line, this is a brilliant and beautiful film by one of our most original filmmaking teams. Millerís Crossing is by far one the Coen Brothersí most outstanding films, and it deserves to be seen by any fan of theirs, as well as revisited by those who admire this film as much as I do.

Video ****

I was so excited to hear this film was finally making it to DVD, and Fox has exceeded my expectations of quality with an astounding video transfer. The visual look to the film is a key factor, as Barry Sonnenfeldís unique camera work openly demonstrates, and the anamorphic picture embraces this notion throughout the presentation. Image clarity is as incredible as you could ever hope for, especially one that happens to be from 13 years ago. No picture flaws at all, even in the sequences which are shot in much darker set pieces. Quite simply a remarkable job well done.

Audio ***

At first I was a bit skeptic at the notion of 4.0 audio mix, but right from the opening credit sequence, backed up by Carter Burwellís hauntingly beautiful score, the sound mix proved to be a whole lot more than I expected it to be. While it should be noted that you shouldnít expect any level of dynamic range, as most of the action emerges from the front area, the sound mix manages to add a dose of power, especially in sequences of violence and shootouts, with a strong sense of projection from the side speakers. Dialogue delivery, in addition, is perfectly sharp and clear.

Features **1/2

Featured on this disc is a interview session with cinematographer Barry Sonennfeld, who recounts his experience shooting Millerís Crossing, as well as how what led to his first collaboration with the Coens. Also included are interview sound bites with Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, and John Turturro, a still gallery, and trailers for this, as well as Barton Fink and Raising Arizona.

Summary:

Millerís Crossing, which a lot of people have no doubt waited for on DVD, can best described as a masterpiece of the unexpected, is now more remarkable and superb than ever in the format.