Directed By: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, John Turturro
Tag line: "Up is down, black is white, and nothing is what it seems"
Trivia: The character of Leo was written for Trey Wilson, who played Nathan Arizona, Sr, in the Coens' previous film, Raising Arizona. Wilson died shortly before production began, so Albert Finney took over the role
It’s the era of prohibition, and Irish mobster Leo (Albert Finney) is in control of the entire city, with his right-hand man, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), advising him every step of the way. When Italian underboss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) asks for permission to knock off bookie Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) for divulging private information about Caspar’s betting habits, Leo refuses, mostly because he’s in love with Bernie’s sister, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), and doesn’t want to do anything that might jeopardize their relationship. In anger, Caspar decides its time to rub out Leo, kicking off an all-out gangland war. And when Leo learns Tom is also sleeping with Verna, it causes a rift between the two men that may spell the end of a criminal empire.
Start to finish, Miller’s Crossing belongs to Gabriel Byrne, whose Tom Reagan is the sole voice of reason, adrift in a sea of rash decisions and hasty actions. Despite the fact Tom himself is involved with Verna, he advises Leo to allow Caspar to “settle the score” with Bernie, because doing so would, at the very least, maintain the status quo. To coincide with his rational approach, Tom can also be blunt, sometimes even downright rude. When Verna asks him if he put in a good word for her brother with Leo, Tom curtly replies “no”. “Well what did you tell him?” Verna asks, to which Tom replies, coolly and quite sincere, “That you were a tramp”. Tom’s as tough as they come, and can even speak his mind to the big boss, probably the only one who can. As Tom is reiterating the advice he gave Leo early on (make peace with Caspar and stop protecting Bernie), he points out that Caspar has grown stronger over the years, and may have the pull to muscle Leo out of the top job. “I figure I can still trade body blows with anyone in this town”, Leo confidently replies, adding, after a slight pause, “except you, Tom”. Thanks to Byrne’s calm, calculated performance, Tom Reagan is one of the cinema's most compelling gangsters, a man who pulls no punches, makes no idle threats, and is usually a step ahead of everybody else.
The Coens interject an overwhelming sense of lyricism into this cruel world of guns and money. Even when the violence turns ugly, the film maintains its poetic flair, with Jazz and Celtic music, soft and melancholy, underscoring many a scene. Then there’s the beautiful recurring image of Tom’s hat blowing in the breeze, a dream sequence that, when interpreted, might suggest Tom is fearful of losing his self-control, something he simply can’t afford to do ("Nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat", he says to Verna). All this, combined with Byrne’s marvelous take on the character and the stunning cinematography of Barry Sonnefeld, does its part to make Miller’s Crossing one of the most artistic entries ever to grace the gangster genre.