Rental Picks: Miller’s Crossing and Road to Perdition

I finally got around to seeing Miller’s Crossing this past weekend, but instead of my usual Weekend Roundup, I decided to review another gangster movie that I’ve been wanting to do for quite a while. Both of these films are set in the Prohibition era of the early 30s, starring two laconic anti-heroes. Interestingly, both also feature a distinct cinematography that is pivotal to the quality of each film as a whole. Despite the similarities though, these are two very different films in their own right.

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

I’m praying to you! Look in your heart. I’m praying to you… look in your heart… look in your heart! You can’t kill me… look in your heart.

This is what a gangster noir genre looks like in the hands of the Coen Brothers (directed by Joel, produced and written by both Joel and Ethan). The film focuses on Tom Reagan, an ‘brains over brawns’ adviser to a crime mob boss Leo whose loyalty is divided between Leo and his rival Caspar as the two gangs vie for control over the city.

The main conflict revolves around a crook named Bernie (whom Caspar called ‘Schmatte’ which is a Yiddish term for a worthless man). Caspar wants Leo to kill but because Leo’s in love with Bernie’s sister Verna, he refuses to do so. Caspar is furious over this, and Tom advises Leo not to risk a gangster war over a woman. Things gets complicated when Tom ends up bedding Verna and gets right in the middle one double-crossing scheme after another.

This genre isn’t my cup of tea, but I was compelled to see this as I’m curious to see more of the Coens’ work after seeing True Grit. Plus, this one stars one of my fave Irish actors Gabriel Byrne. I wasn’t disappointed and Byrne is indeed perfect as the forlorn protagonist with his smoldering eyes. The guy is born to wear a fedora and he looks fantastic in those retro overcoats. I’m also glad this isn’t as bloody as I had thought (for a gangster flick at least), but I’m not saying it’s not suspenseful. In fact, there are lots of edge-of-your-seat moments throughout, especially the scenes at the Miller’s Crossing forest. Another memorable scene takes place in one of the mobster’s house, during which a relentless machine-gun shootout is set to a sentimental Irish ballad ‘Danny Boy.’ It sure is an effective technique that enhances the impact of the scene. It reminds me of a scene in John Woo’s Face/Off where the soothing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ is playing during a vicious gun-battle scene. Finney was all bad-ass in that scene, wow… “The old man’s still an artist with a Thompson,” one guy quipped. Indeed.

As for Byrne, a lot of people say this is one of his finest work and I have to concur. He’s the ‘moral’ center of the movie though he’s not exactly a moral man with his drinking and gambling addiction practically driving his actions. But he’s a complicated man, which makes him a perfect anti-hero. Nothing is clear cut for him, and he’s in constant contemplative mode and remains an enigma ’till the end. Byrne imbues Tom with such cool charisma in virtually every scene he’s in, but his character is one that is hard to love, even if one can’t help but feel for him. John Turturro (Bernie), Jon Polito (Caspar), Marcia Gay-Harden (Verna) and Albert Finney (Leo) are all excellent, but it’s Finney that I think are particularly notable.

This is a movie I’m certain I won’t watch again because it’s just too bleak and cold for my taste, but it’s more than worthwhile just to see Byrne in his best performance. I do appreciate the way the story is told and the dialog is witty and peppered with amusing black humor, as to be expected from the Coens. As I said before, the cinematography by frequent Coens-collaborator Barry Sonnenfeld is also worth checking out. That fedora blown in the wind at the start of the movie is pretty iconic, though upon further reading, it’s just a style the Coens like, there’s no hidden meaning behind it.

Three and a half stars out of Five
3.5 out of 5 reels

Road to Perdition (2002)

There are many stories about Michael Sullivan. Some say he was a decent man. Some say there was no good in him at all. But I once spent 6 weeks on the road with him, in the winter of 1931. This is our story.

I saw this months ago, but somehow I still remember much about it. Road to Perdition is based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, about a hitman named Michael Sullivan. Like Tom Reagan, Mr. Sullivan is an intelligent man of few words whose loyalty is tested. He sees his crime boss John Rooney as a father figure, but things take an unexpected turn after his eldest son inadvertently witnessed a cold-blooded murder done by Rooney’s son, Connor. Unable to convince Connor that he and his son would keep the matter confidential, Sullivan is forced to flee with his young son on a quest to avenge the very people he once held dear.

There is a parallel father-son theme going on in the movie, one between Michael Sullivan and Michael Jr., and the other between John and Connor. Both Sullivan and Rooney want to protect their respective sons. Their predicament is a direct result of what each of their son had done that brought them to this crossroads of life, of which there seems to be no escape.

British director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) did a smashing job creating a somber 1930s setting and he seems to have a thing for shots in the rain, which are beautifully captured by cinematographer Conrad L. Hall. This riveting drama grabbed my attention from start to finish and the unhurried pacing never let my attention waver. Mendes didn’t seem concerned with making a gangster flick with all the genre action stuff people expect to see, but instead he’s more invested in the characters that make the storyline so compelling. A lot of the violence happen off-screen, which goes to show that blood and gore aren’t always necessary to bring about terror on screen. Instead, Mendes relies on superb editing, camera work and music to create a heightened level of suspense throughout.

Whilst Miller’s Crossing looks pretty darn good, this one is amazing. Nearly every scene is frame-worthy, and Mendes seems to have a love affair with rain in his movies. The scenes set in rainy nights are magnificent, especially the street shootout scene towards the end, that perhaps is one of the most iconic rainy scenes ever filmed. It’s breathtaking for two reason: one – the eerie and powerful way the scene itself was shot; and two – the significance of that scenario for the characters involved.

The performances are brilliant. Mr. Sullivan is played with moody perfection by Tom Hanks. I’m not used to seeing Hanks playing such an amoral man, but he’s quite compelling here in what I believe is one of his understated yet astounding performances of his impressive career. Paul Newman is well, Paul Newman, the classy actor who always adds gravitas to everything he’s in. Even though he’s the mobster boss, he’s not a heartless man. In fact, he genuinely cares for the Sullivans and his grief over the whole situation is apparent. The Brits make up the bad guys in the movie: Daniel Craig as Connor and Jude Law as a crime-scene photographer/hitman hired to kill the Sullivans. Both are very effective and convincingly evil in their roles. In fact, Craig here is as far away from the suave and charming Bond as one could get.

I somehow saw the ending coming, but still it’s heart-wrenching yet satisfying. It ties up nicely to that quote that opens the movie and offers a bit of hope to Michael Jr. that he won’t follow in the footsteps of his father. This is one gangster movie besides The Untouchables that I can say I don’t mind watching again. Even if this genre isn’t your thing, I urge you to see this. You won’t be disappointed.

4 out of 5 reels

Has anybody else seen these movies? I’d love to hear what you think of them.

36 thoughts on “Rental Picks: Miller’s Crossing and Road to Perdition

  1. Vince

    Great post. I haven’t seen Miller’s Crossing in almost a decade. This makes me want to check it out again. Road to Perdition is an excellent movie. Very nicely shot and the best casting of Jude Law since Ripley. I was amazed when I learned this was from a Graphic Novel. Works on so many levels.

    1. Yea, I’m glad I finally saw it but I’m not as enamored with ‘Crossing’ as a lot of people. Now, Road to Perdition on the other one, is amazing. I realize there are lots of actors playing against type to great effect in this one. I was surprised it was based on a graphic novel considering how well it translated on screen. The cinematography is just beauuuutiful!

      1. Darren

        And the music. Don’t forget the music. And Paul Newman.

        I miss Paul Newman. He was absolutely brilliant in a (relatively) small role here.

        1. Still need to see Miller’s Crossing (and this post just made me move it to the top of my Netflix queue) but Road is one of my top 10 fav films of all time.

          But totally with you there Darren on the music. Thomas Newman’s score is mesmerizing!!

  2. PrairieGirl

    Never knew anything about Road to Perdition, but with that awesome line up of male actors and your review, I think it certainly will go in the queue!

    1. It’s really, really good, Becky. Well-written script, amazing direction, fab performances… just an all around great film. I can’t say enough about how gorgeous this looks, too. The rainy scenes are one of the best I’ve ever seen.

        1. Oh good! Btw, Vince just told me to see Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid as I mentioned Paul Newman here. I bumped it towards the top of my queue too. That’s one classics I’ve been meaning to see.

          1. PrairieGirl

            Oh, for sure, see BCATSK, he’s right, it’s a Newman/Redford classic, and there’s a lot of fun built into too. Been a LONG time since I’ve seen that one. Another fantastic Newman/Redford film is The Sting (1973). Never saw it until a few months ago, but LOVED it! Another clever, amusing film for them both.

            1. It doesn’t hurt that they both are such fiiiiine eye candy. I actually was listening to some soundtrack radio and the theme from Havana came on. I thought, hmmm maybe I should see that one ’cause it’s got Redford in the lead, but the reviews dissuaded me. Well I still have the original ‘Thomas Crown’ to watch before Butch Cassidy, so not sure when I’ll get to The Sting.

              1. PrairieGirl

                Oh, for sure, out of those four TTCA should definitely be on the top of your list. The other two can wait, and never heard of Havana.

        2. I’m with prairie, I also love me some scenes with rain, snow and similar 🙂
          But when it comes to these two movies I remember falling asleep during both 🙂 The second one especially, there’s something about Hanks that always make me doze of in a matter of seconds 🙂

            1. trust me, darling, Jude’s the only reason I started watching it in the first place 🙂
              PS, don’t forget to drop by tomorrow, I shall play the trailer for SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN 🙂 I know you like that one.
              I wanted to play it tonight, but I already have a post with news on Brendan Fraser and some new sf flick, so I shall post it on Wednesday.

  3. Ted S.

    I think Miller’s Crossing’s one of the most underrated films of the 90s, it didn’t help that it opened around the same time as Goodfellas and Dances with Wolves. Those two films got most of the attention from critics while Miller’s Crossing was left in the cold.

    I really like Road to Perdition, bought the Blu-ray a couple of months ago and watched it. I haven’t seen it since I saw it back in theater in 2002. It’s funny the author of the graphic novel said he wrote the book meant to be made into film by John Woo since the book has lots of action and graphic violence. His words were something like this: “I wrote the book meant for a John Woo movie but I didn’t think they would make it into a Godfather type of a film.” Also, his son became a priest at the end of the story.

    1. I heard some of the reviews said that about being underrated, it was considered a box office failure but I guess it gained lots of ground once it’s released on dvd.

      I think the RtP disc I got from Netflix was Blu-ray, it certainly does look amazing. Hmmm, I like John Woo but I don’t know if I’d like his version better than this one. I like the fact that this film is ‘quiet’ as the music is used sparingly which creates a maximum impact when it was used. One thing for sure we’ll see doves flying if it were a John Woo movie 🙂

      Speaking of which, Ted, do you know if Face/Off is released on Blu-ray? That’s one of my ultimate guilty pleasure I’d love to watch again.

      1. Ted S.

        Yeah it didn’t make any money at all when it first opened in theater, probably because The Coen Bros. were still unknown to general audiences at the time and again that year was filled with bigger films, The Godfather Part 3 also opened in that fall/winter season of 1990.

        It would’ve been interesting had Woo directed Road to Perdition, the graphic novel has all the things that you would expect from his films; lots of shootouts and of course body counts.

        Oh yeah Face/Off has been out on Blu-ray for a while, I have a copy of course and if you want to buy it, you can get it for only $11 on Amazon or you can burrow it from me.

    2. Agreed regarding ‘Perdition.’ The graphic novel made Sullivan seem like a much harder character than the way Hanks played him, so in the end the movie was a bit of a letdown for me (but only a bit).

  4. Nice films there. I love that era. I am watching Boardwalk Empire at the moment and totally in love with that period. I find the gangsters both scary and fascinating. I would easily dress in the dapper suits if I could get away with it too!!

    Perdition is an amazing film. As a father it really hit home hard and made me cry on many occasions. Great review Ruth.

    I am a very big fan of all things Coen and Millers Crossing sure does not disappoint. Although not one of my favourite of their films, I prefer the black comedies (O’ Brother and Lebowski) it is very good.

    Thanks for your review Ruth


    1. Thank you Custard, you are always so very sweet.

      I like films about that era and gangster movies do have a certain appeal, but the reason it’s not my cup of tea is that it’s generally very violent. Perhaps that’s why I appreciate ‘Perdition’ so much because it’s not as violent and focuses on the family dynamics of the characters.

      I’m still on the fence about the Coens. I like Fargo and True Grit but I don’t think there has been any of their films I’d want to own.

  5. Loved Road to Perdition, my only beef is that it could use being 15 minutes shorter. It’s kind of funny watching Daniel Craig play this childish character when you are used to see him kick ass as James Bond.

    I’m sometime able to catch bits here and there on TV but I have yet to see Miller’s Crossing in full,

    1. Y’know, I actually don’t mind the length, maybe ’cause it just looks gorgeous. Yeah, Craig is quite a revelation. This is the first non-Bond movie I saw of his, so I was quite surprised. He’s a darn good actor.

        1. Oh I haven’t seen Defiance but I’ve heard great things about it. I love Jamie Bell, soooo talented. I guess I really should see that since I like Liev Schrieber also.

          1. Darren

            Nah, Defiance is just okay, to be hoenst. It’s grand, but not great. Schreiber is the reason to watch it. The man is a legend.

  6. Interesting double-bill, Ruth. Two on opposite ends of the spectrum for me. I’m one of those rare people who thought Miller’s Crossing was vastly overrated. Definitely not one of the Coen’s finest. The dialogue is terrible, especially for them.

    On the other hand, The Road to Perdition is one of my favourite movies. Such a beautiful piece of cinema, and I agree with you about that rain-soaked shoot-out scene. Breathtaking.

    1. Y’know, to be honest I’m not crazy about Miller’s Crossing. I give it high marks mostly for the performances but overall I’m not fond of it. But I certainly can watch Road to Perdition repeatedly. I can even say it’s one of my favorite Tom Hanks movies.

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  8. I can’t say I’ve seen Miller’s Crossing, however I loved Road to Perdition. It may rank in my top 10 Tom Hanks movies. Heck, it might even be up there on a list of my favorite comic book/graphic novel adaptations. Oddly enough, it was the longest before I ever even knew it was a graphic novel adaptation.

    It’s a really good gangster flick though. The cinematography, like you point out, is great in it. The style was done very well. It also has a real good cast. Just all around the movie was good, firing on all cylinders. Makes me want to go back and watch it again.

    1. Yeah, it’d be in my top five Tom Hanks movies as well. In fact, I’m inspired to do such a list as I’ve seen quite a lot of Hanks’ movies.

      But at the same time this movie is good not only because of Hanks, it’s just an excellent piece of filmmaking from direction/script, etc. are concerned.

  9. I absolutely loved Road to Perdition and forgot about Daniel Craig being in it! I can’t wait to hopefully see the sequels Road to Purgatory and Road to Paradise come to cinema.

    I haven’t seen Miller’s Crossing, nor have I heard of it. But the fact that the Coen bro’s did it makes it seem like something I might have to check out.

    Great reviews Ruth!

    1. Hi T, well so far I haven’t heard anyone not liking Road to Perdition, but then again, what’s not to like?

      Oh I had no idea the sequels are in the works. Ted said below that the kid becomes a priest in the end, I guess I’m not sure what the follow up would be about.

  10. Jack Deth

    Hi, rtm:

    Great thread so far!

    I’m leaning just a bit more towards ‘Miller’s Crossing’ than ‘Road To Perdition’.

    ‘Miller’s Crossing’ is a fine Coen brothers’ take on master pulp writer, Dashiell Hammett’s ‘The Glass Key’ and its 1942 film starring Alan Ladd, William Bendix and Veronica Lake.

    The locations may be different, but the tales are basically the same. With superb writing and excellent casts holding up their ends in portraying life in an open, corrupt town and the battles that erupt to maintain its power.

    That said, ‘Road To Perdition’ offers a wildly diverse cast. Most at the tops of their games. Refreshingly acting against type and pulling it off with elan and flair.

    Especially Tom Hanks, Jude Law and Daniel Craig with Paul Newman deftly at the top of the pyramid. In one of the best transitions of a popular graphic novel (Merchandising speak for ‘Comic Book’) to the big screen; though Frank Miller’s ‘Sin City’ still tops that category.

    1. I think both are excellent, but I’m not into the Coens’ style and if it weren’t for Gabriel Byrne I’m not sure I’d even watch it. Road To Perdition on the other hand is just impressive on so many level, visually and acting-wise is just superb. Having Paul Newman in there is a major plus as well.

      I found out after I saw it that it’s based on a graphic novel. Wow, I must say it translates amazingly well to the big screen.

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