Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Directed by the Coen Brothers

Millers-Crossing-LB-1

The first thing I noticed about Miller’s Crossing is how much Tommy (Gabriel Byrne) gets beat up.  He’s an enforcer, working for both sides of a mafia war and everywhere in between.  His loyalty is never certain, not to either side and not even to the audience at times.  So everyone works with him, but everyone also takes their turn beating him up.

I’m trying to think of a metaphor for his character, but I can’t think of one.  On one hand he’s incredibly smooth, navigating stormy waters in a way to save himself and the people he wishes to protect, including his love interest, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) and her trouble-causing brother, Bernie (John Turturro).  But on the other hand, everyone seems out to get him.

And even though the events of this film are meant to be very dramatic, very serious, very deadly, it all feels kind of silly ultimately.  It’s just a game, one driven by petty grievances and inflated egos.  Whenever the police show up, in a couple funny and loud shootouts, they never look at Tommy or likeminded criminals as anything other than people playing a game.  The police usually show up as comic relief, in fact, like referees breaking up a fight during a baseball game.

The two people at either side of this conflict are Leo (Albert Finney) and Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito).  At the start, Tommy works for Leo, then eventually shifts to Caspar, and then finally back to Leo.  But really, Tommy just works for himself.  His aim is to survive, and shifting allegiances is the way to do that.

As Tommy tells multiple people, “nobody knows anybody, not that well.”  The only character who does know Tommy is Eddie Dane, Caspar’s chief enforcer who can see through Tommy’s allegiance bullshit from the start.  Tommy, in order to save his ass, makes up a story about how Eddie is out to get Caspar, and when Eddie turns the tables on Tommy, looking to be an inch of killing him, Caspar intervenes, killing Eddie and announcing his faith in his new enforcer.

And yet Caspar ends up dead, shot by Bernie in a confrontation orchestrated by Tommy.  This is a situation in which Tommy didn’t know if Bernie would die or Caspar would, yet he could be certain that someone would die, and it didn’t really matter who.  So it doesn’t even matter who I’m talking about or the fact that I’ve hardly described what gets the plot rolling in the first place.

The story begins when Caspar comes to Leo, letting him know that he wants to kill Bernie because the kid is interfering with some of his poker games (if I remember correctly).  Leo tells him no because he’s sleeping with Verna, Bernie’s brother.  Of course Leo doesn’t realize that Tommy is too.

So Caspar desperately wants Bernie dead, and when Leo eventually discovers his affair with Verna, Tommy joins Caspar’s team and is immediately tasked with killing Bernie to prove his loyalty.  He only pretends to kill him, ordering Bernie to ditch town forever, and from this comes a web of decisions and deaths all meant to assure Tommy’s cover.

It all ends with Caspar dead and Tommy killing Bernie to make up a story that, again, protects his own ass.  It’s important, I suppose, that Leo gets back together with Verna and Tommy is left alone.  If you’re only ever out for number one, than all you’re left with is number one.

Miller’s Crossing seems to be the main inspiration for the television program Fargo, Noah Hawley’s Coen Brothers adaptation.  The first two seasons of that show (I have yet to see the third) are based on Fargo, yet they are loaded with characters and imagery from most of the Coen Brothers’ films, including style, humor and archetypes.  But each of those seasons starts with a sort of family/mafia war.  And in each case, the conflict seems avoidable, but it usually escalates due to misunderstandings and ego.  In other words, the conflict in those seasons is based on the type of conflict in this film.

And the humor is there too.  A couple of the funniest scenes of the film involve Johnny Caspar chastising his son, and one of the funniest lines might be when his chubby son, asked what he has had to eat today, says “two hotdogs.”  The Coen Brothers have a way of letting a film breathe, whether with humor or character moments that feel outside of the plot and yet further illuminate the world of the story (such as when Marge Gunderson meets a lonely former classmate in Fargo).

The title of the film refers to the spot in the forrest where the mafia families take people to be killed.  The credit sequence of the film has a camera looking straight up into the sky, moving slowly through the forrest.  It’s very dream-like, and Tommy even says that he has a dream about this location in which he loses his hat.  We see that image, of the hat falling to the ground and blowing away in the wind.  The image seems to allude to death, and I think Verna even asks him this directly, almost as if to undercut what he’s saying.

I guess Miller’s Crossing is like no man’s land in this deadly game between mob bosses.  It’s the gray area in the middle of two opposites, and the whole story deals with Tommy navigating that gray area.  He doesn’t even seem to know what side he’s really on.

From a narrative point of view, I think the decision to force Tommy out from under Leo’s wing works tremendously well.  It’s always inherently interesting to develop two characters’ relationship, then force a rift between them that they will have to address ultimately.  They start as friends and become enemies.  The same thing happened in The Color of Money and Warrior, the 2011 Tom Hardy movie.

In this case it works so well, partially because of a scene in which Leo kills two would-be assassins.  It’s an awesome scene on its own, with Leo noticing that something is up when he sees the smoke from a gunshot seeping through the floorboards and into his upstairs room.  The scene is blocked and choreographed nicely, but Leo is also such a badass in the moment.  This whole thing sets him up to feel almost invincible, and so when Tommy suddenly finds himself on this man’s shit list, the drama is amped up tenfold.  It’s not just that he’s now fighting against the man he was once fighting with, but also that that man is basically Iron Man with a tommy gun.

 

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