The plot may be an almost plagiaristic mix of novelist Dashiell Hammett’s Glass Key and Red Harvest, but the cinematic and thematic originality of the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990) is never in question. This gorgeous film—it may still be their most beautifully photographed work—marks the full flowering of the filmmaking brothers as important artists in film. There’s not a false move, a bad angle, an awkward line or a wanting performance at any point in their fascinating tale of gang warfare, family loyalty, personal loyalty and homoerotic bonding set in some peculiarly insular, corrupt, never-identified small town in 1920s America.
A few eyebrows probably went skyward when I used the term “homoerotic bonding” to describe the film, but really that’s at the core of the movie. This is less about the romance between Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) and Verna Bernbaum (Marcia Gay Harden), or the romance between Verna and Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney)—except in the fact that Tom and Leo connect through the same woman—than it is about the romance between Tom and Leo. Oh, there’s nothing to indicate even briefly that this is acted on (though there are several bits of suggestive dialogue, and Leo likens dealing with Tom to “handling” a woman), but their relationship is at the core of the film. (Interestingly enough, however, homosexuality is an accepted fact of life in the world of the film—seemingly more accepted than being Jewish, in fact.) At the same time, the film never forgets that it’s also a sardonic neo-noir gangster story with a wicked sense of humor and unfettered violence. Few emotionally deep films are this purely entertaining, and few entertaining films are this deep. It’s an extraordinary work on every level.