Gabriel Byrne’s entry in film critic David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Expanded and Updated, published in 2004, includes this aside:
Somehow, I always have the urge to reach out and tickle Gabriel Byrne. I think it’s because his uncommon aura of gloom and sadness seems so complete it likely masks a teaser or a practical joker. But looking the way he does, how is he ever going to get cast in a comedy–especially when films incline so naturally towards ruined priests, morose gangsters, and depressed terrorists? And, truth to tell, he did the poker-faced, life-is-short routine so superbly in “Miller’s Crossing” (1990, Joel and Ethan Coen) that he might as well laugh sometimes.
That’s not just his best film, it’s one of the best performances in American film–the whole melancholy routine.
Now, on its 30th anniversary, we’re taking a look back at Miller’s Crossing. Two of the best appraisals of this watershed moment in Gabriel’s career are excerpted below. Incisive and intriguing, they provide some scope and context for both the film and Gabriel’s central role. Plus there is a captivating video overview of the film (full of spoilers, of course) provided by Movie Birthdays that offers its own interpretation of the movie and Gabriel’s Tom Reagan.
But I always say the best thing to do on the anniversary of a great movie premiere or a great book first being published is to re-experience the thing itself. So I suggest sitting down with an Irish whiskey or other beverage of your choice, putting your feet up, and indulging in the dark, smoky, dangerous banquet that offers us one of Gabriel’s finest performances: Miller’s Crossing.
Miller’s Crossing at 30: the Coen brothers’ unknowable gangster drama
The Guardian/ Scott Tobias
When Miller’s Crossing was released 30 years ago, there emerged two competing camps on the Coen brothers, who had previously written and directed the stylish 1984 neo-noir Blood Simple and the deliriously farcical 1987 comedy Raising Arizona. They were either genre craftsmen of boundless range and impeccable wit and craft, or glib, soulless pastiche artists who condescended to their characters, and to the audience at large. Though consensus has swung hard in the Coens’ direction over the years – albeit not on ranked lists, which is still the surest route to an argument on social media – their work is still so fussily calibrated that it can hard to tell where the heart lies.
In that respect alone, Miller’s Crossing is the quintessential Coen brothers film, because they constructed it around a hero who’s very much like themselves: a behind-the-scenes operator who’s smarter than everyone, but whose heart is in question right to the very last shot. Perhaps that’s the reason the film mostly tanked in 1990, though premiering in the shadow of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, instantly understood as one of the great gangster dramas, probably didn’t help. Apart from all the other estranging qualities of a knottily plotted homage to Dashiell Hammett and other rarefied sources, building a film around Tom Reagan, a character unknown even to those closest to him, is close to perverse. In fact, Roger Ebert wrote a whole review of Miller’s Crossing without even bringing him up!
As played by Gabriel Byrne, Tom is the biggest question mark in a film that’s full of them. He’s a shrewd thinker, understood by friends and adversaries as a man who can see several steps ahead on the board and manipulate various parties to a cleverly orchestrated outcome. At the same time, he’s riddled with flaws and contradictions, given to hard drinking and reckless gambling, casual betrayal, and an unwieldiness to pull the trigger on a hit he’s responsible for arranging. Among the many references at play here, the Coens have made a version of The Godfather where Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), the Corleone family’s lawyer and fixer, is the main character. (The names are even similar.) It’s like entering the gangster-movie genre through the side door.
After analyzing the plot and the story, Tobias closes his look at Miller’s Crossing perfectly:
Do the Coens mean any of this? Is there any authentic feeling in Miller’s Crossing, or is it just a couple of wiseacres trying on period garb for size? That question has persistently dogged the film for 30 years, but the Coens have never been ones for easy sentiment. Tom is the man who wasn’t there before The Man Who Wasn’t There, and the fact that he’s hard to read doesn’t make him unreadable or not worth reading. He cares, as do the Coens. You just have to squint a little to see it.
It’s Time to Acknowledge Miller’s Crossing As the Best Coen Brothers Movie
Esquire Magazine/ Chris Nashawaty
Thirty years after its release, there hasn’t been another film that asks more from its audience—yet rewards them with so much for their efforts
But what, you may ask, makes Miller’s Crossing better than Fargo or The Big Lebowski or No Country For Old Men or Inside Llewyn Davis? Of course, these things are all subjective. But I can’t think of another Coen brothers film with as much sheer ambition. It dares to turn a pair of traditionally streamlined genres (film noir, gangster pictures) into something so convoluted it borders on the Baroque. This isn’t a movie where characters double-cross one another, they triple- and quadruple-cross one another until your head starts to hurt. Tamping down the visual pyrotechnics of Raising Arizona, Sonnenfeld gives the film an almost-stately sepia period palette. His technique in the film’s greatest sequence, where Finney’s Leo unleashes tommy-gun justice on a pair of assassins sent to kill him while he’s at home lying in bed in his silk bathrobe listening to “Danny Boy” on the phonograph, is the single greatest Brian De Palma wind-up that De Palma never directed. Almost every actor in the film gives the best performance of their career in Miller’s Crossing, especially Turturro, Polito, and Harden, whose incestuous, “sick twist” Verna bristles with the sort of ferocious, tough-talking fatalism that would have put Gloria Grahame, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lauren Bacall out of work had the film been made in the ‘40s.
And then, of course, there’s Byrne’s Tom—a character as snake-bitten and self-destructive as any since Bogie played Rick Blaine. It isn’t just Byrne’s lyrical Irish brogue (an acting choice he had to sell the Coens on—they wanted him to speak with an American accent), it’s the scalpel-sharp Machiavellian instincts he brings to every decisive moment in the film’s plot. Tom is constantly measuring the motivations of the other characters on screen, sussing out not only what they want from him, but how they plan to get it (which is usually an upper cut to the bread basket). His hat, here’s that hat again, is his identity and the source of his power. Like Indiana Jones, when he’s wearing it, he’s in charge, the man who sees all the angles (except the curviest ones). When he’s not, chances are he’s getting the snot beat out of him by a thug named Frankie or The Dane.
Made for 14 million of Fox’s dollars, at that point the Coens’ biggest budget by far, Miller’s Crossing would eke out just $5 million at the box office before limping its way to home video. In the meantime, Vincent Canby panned the film in The New York Times, calling it “weightless” and “without much point at all.” Further down the page, he continued with this backhanded compliment: “The Coens, as students of film history, might console themselves with the knowledge that audiences were once similarly baffled by Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep.”
For the record, I adore The Big Sleep. Still, I think Canby was on to something. Sometimes the best movies, the ones we remember and re-watch over and over again, the ones we can’t get out of our heads like the dream of black hat blowing in the wind, are only appreciated after their time has passed. They’re for the ages, not the moment. They are there to be rediscovered, reevaluated, and resurrected. At least, that’s what I’d like to think will happen one day with Miller’s Crossing.
Chasing Hats: Miller’s Crossing at 30
From Movie Birthdays: Celebrating Great Movies on YouTube
Happy 30th Anniversary to Miller’s Crossing. You bring us joy and delight every time we sit down and pay close attention to you. With lots of popcorn.
And occasionally an Irish whiskey.
We know what the rumpus is. It’s you. heart
Great article Stella. I can’t believe it’s been 30 years. Man do I feel old.
You’re not getting older, Boo. You’re aging like fine wine. Just like Miller’s Crossing! <3
I can see this excellent film … full of violence, intrigue, and treason, on my PC many times. I enjoyed it so much, of course Mr Byrne too, all of them excellent in their roles … love it …