Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Written Joel and Ethan Coen
Directed by Joel Coen
Miller’s Crossing is not often cited these days when people talk about the Coen Brothers’ body of work, but I think it deserves a higher spot. The film is such a cleverly constructed story, moving at a brisk pace and never feeling it’s two-hour runtime. The world of the film is so rich and layered with a back story, and the Coens reveal only as much as we need to know to understand the story. The rest is left up the viewer to infer and ponder, which is something about the Coen Brothers that I absolutely love.
Tom (Gabriel Byrne) is the right hand to Leo (Albert Finney), an Irish mobster in an unnamed American small town during Prohibition. Leo owns the police and the mayor’s offices and manages disputes between various entities throughout the city. A conflict has boiled up between Caspar, who wants to kill the bookie Bernie (John Turturro), who has been ruining his rigged fights by leaking information. Leo is in a relationship with Bernie’s sister Verna which causes him to ignore Caspar’s request. Tom is worried because he sees Caspar’s concerns being pushed to the side as the catalyst for more significant problems.
Tom is one of the Coen Brother’s most complicated characters, and that is saying a lot if you do a survey of their filmography. Throughout the film, he consistently lies to and double-crosses every character. One of his most egregious lies is allowing Verna to think Tom’s going to go to bat for Bernie when he speaks to Leo. But even when he has to bring the hammer down on the crooked bookie, he manages to lie to the people who expect things from Tom in this matter.
Tom’s hat is one of the most vital components of understanding the character as he relies on the hat to obscure his motives. The opening credits play over his dream of being in the woods and watching his hat blow away, eventually understood as a metaphor for his armor. If you track the placement of the hat throughout the movie every time Tom loses his hat, he’s about to get a physical attack. He dreams about losing his hat while sleeping with Verna symbolizing the vulnerability he has by becoming involved with his boss’s girl. With that in mind, pay close attention to the final scene and how Tom interacts with that hat.
While Gabriel Byrne does a great job playing Tom as a steely, close to vest stoic, John Turturro delivers something on the other end of the spectrum as Bernie. Bernie is such a slimy, rotten character and is that way from his introduction. Tom finds Bernie already in his apartment waiting for him, and two have an exchange about the bookie’s problems with Caspar. During this opening talk, Bernie implies that he’s been involved incestuously with Verna while speaking about her as someone who uses sex to get her way. Later, Bernie emotionally manipulates Tom and then lords that over the man in a disgusting display. I don’t think the Coens ever used Turturro better than they did in this picture.
1990 was a year of gangsters between Miller’s Crossing, Goodfellas, and Dick Tracy, each film with a very different take and aesthetic when it came to examining the lives of people who place themselves into dire situations with dangerous people. Miller’s Crossing is a movie about a quiet man amid loud, arrogant people who, while lying to them all, appears to be working for at least one party for a positive outcome. The answer to Tom’s true intentions is left up in the air for the audience to ponder. Did Tom genuinely care about helping Leo? Was he always out to save his own skin? Like a good noir film, the solution to those questions doesn’t come easy.