Nothing makes you feel more like an asshole than not liking a Coen Brothers film. When this was originally shown to me at age 18, I found it a bore and as I began this rewatch, I understood why. The film appears to have a slow start. It could be retitled to “Names” as the first twenty minutes is someone talking about characters we haven’t met and things we haven’t seen. It’s overwhelming and with the speed at which the film moves, it can be hard to follow. Now as an older, slightly more well rounded viewer, I appreciate the opening and the thematic foundation it lays as Caspar (Jon Polito) pontificates on the importance of ethics, a trait that is questionable about everyone invMiller’s Crossing.
It’s remarkable that this film came out the same year as Goodfellas, a cocaine driven, out of control gangster film that laid the blue print for countless replicas to come. Crossing is such a contrast, it’s a somber, methodic story of one man caught between warring mobs. It deals with themes of loyalty, ethnicity and one’s moral compass. Goodfellas is your classic rise and fall of a guy who gets too cocky with power but we remember Scorsese’s picture because it’s so grand, exciting and easier to digest. Joel Coen may not be as flashy but there is so much intention and importance with each shot he does. The quiet tone throughout makes the action sequences hit harder. I wish Leo’s (Albert Finney) shootout had become just as iconic as the dead body montage.
As Bernie (John Turtturo) is being taken to the woods to be wacked he pleads to Tom (Gabriel Bryne) saying “you’re not like those animals back there” and that’s what this film posits. In the world of gangsters, crooked politicians and grifters, everyone thinks they are morally superior and the world around them is full of disreputable scum. Tom is struggling to find a middle ground where he can keep himself alive without having to do the heinous acts his line of work calls for. The Coens craft rich characters in there wickedness from Bernie who will say anything to stay alive to the brainless mayor who will bend for whoever has the upper hand. It’s a subtle and slow build where the Coens recreate a forgotten time of Prohibition and those who got caught up in it. A strong edition to the duos more serious films repertoire but still has that touch of comedy with wild characters like Mink (Steve Buscemi) to the Keystone Kops type raids. Painting a dismal picture of the criminal underground of the 1920’s, much like Once Upon A Time In America before it this is a grossly underrated classic.