Here’s a jewel of a gangster film from director Joel Coen and producer Ethan Coen, with the sterling screenplay credited to both. It’s the best picture yet from the Coen brothers: They’ve further honed the talent they demonstrated in the film noir thriller Blood Simple (1984) and the kidnap comedy Raising Arizona (1987), but this time they’re not just showing off their technique. There’s a new self-assurance with no loss of wit or invention. Instead of merely looking for ways to send up the crime genre, the Coens are searching for its heart. This is their most impassioned film, filled with images — superbly shot by Barry Sonnenfeld — that are spare, resonant and astonishingly beautiful.
Set in 1929 in an unnamed eastern city, the film opens in a wooded area with a black fedora spinning in the breeze. The image, at once romantic and sinister, establishes the film’s mood of uncertainty. Leo, an Irish political boss played by Albert Finney, is in danger of losing his power in a city full of ethnic rivalries. An ambitious Italian capo named Johnny Caspar (the excellent Jon Polito) wants Leo to get rid of Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), a homosexual Jewish hood trying to muscle in on Caspar’s territory. Leo’s cagey right-hand man, Tom, played by Gabriel Byrne, advises his boss to comply before Caspar and his top enforcer, the Dane (a fiendish J.E. Freeman), start a war. But Leo’s not buying; Bernie is the brother of Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), the moll Leo loves. And unbeknownst to Leo, Verna’s spending a lot of time in Tom’s bed. The situation is ripe for personal betrayals and brutal reprisals.
It’s a tangled web with an erotic subtext reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett’s novels, especially The Glass Key. But as in the work of that pulp master, the plot’s not the point. Action, atmosphere and humor are, and the film offers plenty of each. In one stunning set piece, done to the tune of “Danny Boy,” Leo uses his Thompson gun to pump holes in assassins who have come to burn down his house, chasing one thug out the window and into the street, his weapon blazing.
Still, it’s the strong characterizations that give the film heft. Turturro’s definitive portrait of a weasel is surely Oscar bait; the scene in which he begs for his life in the woods near Miller’s Crossing is a tour de force. And stage actress Harden scores a most impressive screen debut. But it’s Finney and Byrne, detailing the strain between Leo and Tom, who cut deepest. Finney, as ever, doesn’t make a false move. And Byrne, an Irish actor who’s spent years bolstering weak movies (Gothic, Hello Again, Siesta), seizes the role of his career and delivers a tough, sorrowful performance of rare distinction. Don’t make it a question of if you should see Miller’s Crossing; make it a question of how soon. It’s that special.