Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Miller's Crossing (1990) directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coen Brothers are my favorite directors, and Miller’s Crossing is my favorite of their movies. When I first thought about constructing my personal film canon this was the second or third film in (after Groundhog Day and maybe The Third Man). It has everything I like about the Coens. Exaggerated characters. Highly stylized dialogue that is cleverer than people in the real world, but is more enjoyable than more naturalistic modes of speech. Ambiguous intentions and uncertainty. A warped sense of humor. A tribute to old Hollywood.

The opening scene is my favorite in cinema. The clink of two ice cubes followed by pouring and then Johnny Caspar’s voice (that of the late lamented Jon Polito) fades in delivering a glorious monologue about the ethics of fixing fights and killing bookies. In the background Tom Ragen (Gabriel Byrne) walks with his drink from the background to stand behind his boss Leo (Albert Finney). Though the focus of the exchange is between Caspar and Leo, Tom Ragen has a stare off with the Dane, who is to Caspar what Tom is to Leo. When Leo doesn’t give Caspar permission to kill a bookie, Tom flinches. He immediately sees that this is going to cause trouble. The film takes so many twists and contains so many double crosses that it takes (or at least it took me) several screenings to chart out exactly who is crossing whom at what point. Tom looks smart because he made it through, but he was luckier than he was clever.

The rhythm of the dialog carried me through those early screenings. Exchanges like “Intimidating helpless women is my job.” “Then find one and intimidate her.” or “You know I don’t like to think.” “Well think about whether you should start.” abound. So do lines like "If I'd known we were gonna cast our feelings into words, I'da memorized the Song of Solomon." Tom raises a glass to Chief O’Doole in the middle of a Prohibition raid on a club and says, “To Volstead.” Everyone delivers their dialog perfectly. Even the smaller roles are perfectly cast, but Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, Albert Finney, John Turturro and above all Jon Polito do incredible work here.

Throughout the film, the characters are sure they understand the other characters' motivation and tell them about it. Verna, who is in love with Tom but is stepping out with Leo to protect her brother, the bookie, is sure she understands Tom. Tom knows exactly why Verna killed Rug Daniels (she didn’t). Caspar thinks he knows the Dane’s motivation until he doesn’t. The Dane is sure Tom’s not on the level. Chief O’Doole is constantly pointing out how no one’s motivations make any sense. But as Tom says, “No one knows anybody. Not that well.” He says that there’s “nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat.” And yet, chasing his hat is as good a description of what he does throughout the movie as any. Once the smoke clears Leo says he sees why Tom took the actions he did. Tom replies, “Do you always know why you do things, Leo?” Leo says yes, but he clearly doesn't. For all their confidence, the characters' certainty is unwarranted.

Uncertainty is a key theme throughout the Coens’ movies. After watching them for  almost two decades, it is hard to say how much that uncertainty is what drew me to them, and how much they shaped my own uncertainty.* Their willingness to let events be ambiguous is probably why people mistook them for nihilists for so long (an idea they mocked brilliantly in The Big Lebowski). It’s not that they have no ethics, they just admit that the ethical choice isn’t always clear. Caspar’s opening monologue is a great illustration of this. He’s ranting about the unethical bookie who’s selling tips on how he bets, and yet he’s there to ask permission to murder him. Throughout the film, Caspar talks about the ethics of the double cross and makes his judgments based on his perceptions of the character of the people around him. All of those people are murderers. The Coens are essentially asking what constitutes ethical behavior on the part of a person living in a system if that system is itself unethical. There is no clear answer to that question, and they don’t try to shoehorn one in. This feels uncomfortable, but it is honest.

For all of Miller’s Crossing's heavy thematic work, it is a lot of fun. It is a highly entertaining, often sad, often hilarious, always compulsively watchable tribute to Hammett style crime noir. The other ethically ambiguous gangster movie that came out that year, Goodfellas (a film I really love) doesn’t hold a candle to this one.

The Coens have made at least five or six movies that would count as another director’s definitive masterwork. Even with that consistency over the course of thirty plus years, Miller’s Crossing is, for me, their crowning achievement.


*I’d read enough Walker Percy and Frederick Buechner by the time I discovered them that they can’t take the whole blame.

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