One of my favorite critics writes about one of his favorite movies in The Atlantic: the highlight of Christopher Orr’s outstanding series on the Coen Brothers‘ films is his essay on Miller’s Crossing. Whether you’re a fan of the Coens or of this film or not, Orr’s essay is a pleasure to read for its deep engagement with the film and lucidity of prose.
Miller’s Crossing is an aesthetic pleasure of the highest order on nearly every level. Begin with its almost intolerably sumptuous cinematography, with reds and greens so deep one is in danger of falling into them. This was the last film that Barry Sonnenfeld shot for the Coens—and one for which he persuaded them to use long lenses instead of the wide-angle variety they had favored—and no one involved has mustered a better-looking work since. The production design by Dennis Gassner is comparably extraordinary: the long, long oak rooms with their endless oriental rugs and all the furniture seemingly tucked into one corner.
And did I mention the score? It is not only the best work Carter Burwell has done for the Coens (or anyone else), it set a model that he would later follow for his almost-as-good scores for Fargo and True Grit: taking a traditional piece of music with some culturally relevant connection and using it as the central motif of the broader arrangement. In this case, it was the Irish ballad “Limerick’s Lamentation.” (It’s usually played on a fiddle, I think, but here’s an interesting version on a hammered dulcimer.) Burwell’s score has lived on since: It was used for the trailer of the (astonishingly bad) Melanie Griffith vehicle Shining Through as well as that of at least one other 1990s movie I can’t quite recall at the moment. [Update: It came to me after publication that the trailer I was thinking of was for the 1995 movie Powder. In addition, I was reminded that the score was used in the trailer for The Shawshank Redemption(!) in 1994.] It also served, as I recently discovered, in an ad for Caffrey’s Irish Ale. It is one of the truly great film scores of the last 30 years.