There may be no other gangster film in existence that walks the tightrope Miller’s Crossing walks. On the one hand, the third film from the Coen Brothers is of a piece with the 1930s gangster flicks that influenced it, full of colorful criminals and double-crosses and rat-a-tat action. The dialogue is straight from Dashiell Hammett and the production design is straight from the pre-Code era, à la Scarface and Little Caesar. The gangster subgenre and critical thinking on the subgenre are historically grounded in realism, unlike the mythic and symbolic trappings of the film Western, and Miller’s Crossing honors that in its gritty, ruminative approach to a complex plot. It is, in short, a quintessential gangster film.
On the other hand, stuff like this happens:
The pure gangster film we’ve described so far is constantly in sharp discordance with the Miller’s Crossing that knows it’s a gangster film. Self-awareness is not a traditional quality of the gangster picture. We’re supposed to be shocked when characters get riddled with bullets, not laugh at the absurdity of the manner of their demise (see above). Big hulking goons are supposed to be aces in fistfights, not whimper when they get bonked on the nose. And we’re not supposed to be expending energy reading into tophat dream symbolism during a traditional crime flick, right? In short, this is anything but a quintessential gangster film.
It makes a bit of sense that the Coens would instill this duality into Crossing. Their first feature, Blood Simple, was a straightfaced neo-noir with exactly one instance of explicit self-awareness (the camera hopping over a barfly). There are no winks to the audience and the violence is truly shocking. But their second feature, Raising Arizona, accelerates the mere notion of self-awareness to its breaking point and stops just short of becoming actual metafiction. It’s also technically a “crime” film, but here there are constant winks to the audience and the violence is rooted more in Looney Tunes than in hardboiled crime cinema. In terms of self-awareness, Miller’s Crossing is perhaps a perfect blend of the two Coen features that preceded it.
All of this makes for an odd experience trying to evaluate the film critically, not that “evaluating the film critically” is ever anything but an odd experience with the Coen Brothers. Even within their oeuvre, Crossing is championed by some critics and shrugged off by others. Christopher Orr at The Atlantic expounds on the film’s self-awareness, notes Crossing‘s explicit references to everything from The Godfather to The Third Man and calls it a “meta gangster movie.” He also ranks it as the second-best Coen flick. Others were turned off by the very same self-awareness, among them Roger Ebert, who called the strengths of the film “largely technical.”
Again, both are valid viewpoints on a film that intentionally walks the tightrope between being straightfaced and being tongue-in-cheek. The Coens’ original title was The Bighead, which, if we can presume this as a reference to Gabriel Byrne’s main character Tom Reagan, suggests that the self-aware sheen was actually toned down throughout the life of the story. Evaluated alongside other gangster films, one can certainly understand a bitter taste left in the mouths of genre purists trying to easily pin Crossing to that particular corkboard. It doesn’t fit easily, and in fact it’s possible that one might even construe the more tongue-in-cheek elements as poking fun at gangster archetypes. Inside Llewyn Davis, which the Coens would make decades later, is clearly devoted to the love of American folk music…but in some ways it purposefully belittles that same tradition. Crossing, like Davis, splits the knife in respectfully representing the genre to which it ostensibly belongs.
But if we return to consideration of the Coens’ third film within their entire body of work, it’s in the characters that we find the most interesting evolutions. The classic Coen protagonist is a goofball, to put it lightly, and a lovable idiot to state it directly. As a Coen protagonist who actually has a notable brain in his head, Tom Reagan is joined only by Marge Gunderson (Fargo), Ed Tom Bell (No Country for Old Men), Mattie Ross (True Grit) and possibly Eddie Mannix (Hail, Caesar!), all of whom are decidedly more eccentric than Reagan. Sure, elsewhere in Crossing we have the typical ne-er-do-wells, the bombastic Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), the meek Mink (Steve Buscemi), the mischievous Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro). But Reagan is frankly very un-Coenlike in how well he fits the traditional hero mold.
The very first shot of Miller’s Crossing is of ice clinking into a glass, whiskey being poured over it. How do you like your whiskey? Straight, no chaser, just as the original makers intended? Triple-distilled, perhaps, if you’re seeking a purer experience? Or maybe a modern twist, something more exciting than what whiskey-drinkers have been drinking for ages? It’s all still whiskey, technically. If you have your vice of choice, sure, it’s tough to stray from that — but if you need a little shake-up while sticking to your guns, try Miller’s Crossing straight-up.