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A Paternity Leave Review of "Miller's Crossing" (1990)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Despite being a well-respected film and one of Time Magazine's 100 Best Movies, I can't help but feel like Miller's Crossing is one of the Coen Brothers most under-appreciated films.  Maybe it's just the fact that it lives in the shadow of Barton Fink or maybe it was its disappointing theatrical run, but I always feel like it gets the short shrift.  I've been a major fan of the film ever since it was first released and I still believe that Miller's Crossing is perhaps the greatest film made by the Coen Brothers.

My Rating: 5 / 5

The Part Where I Warn About / Justify Spoilers

Ordinarily I would try to avoid spoilers, but Miller's Crossing is kind of unique.  It's one of the only movies that works better the more you know going into it.

You ever have that experience in a literature class where you're supposed to read a seventeenth century essay and the words just seem like a block of impenetrable noise until your teacher says, "He's writing about fucking his girlfriend," and then you take a second look and suddenly it's crystal clear?  That's basically Miller's Crossing, except it's only about 20 years old and only a tiny portion of it is about fucking.

It's a dense and unforgiving movie.  Important plot points are communicated in fleeting moments and passing asides.  Nonverbal cues carry tremendous weight and seemingly minor characters have critical, pervasive effects on the world.  It is no exaggeration to say that every single element contributes to the overall experience; this is the definition of "no loose ends." If you step away from the screen for more than thirty seconds, you will have fallen so far behind that you might as well start over.

I guess what I'm saying is, you should probably not drink while this one's on.  Maybe try watching at like 2:00 PM on a Saturday.  That's a good time for Miller's Crossing.

I'm not going to give a comprehensive synopsis, but since any information you know going into it will help, I'm also not going to shy away from spoilers.  Realistically, though, if you haven't seen the film yet... you're going to forget anything I write here ten minutes in.

The Bit Where I Summarize the Plot

Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is a high-ranking mobster with a crippling gambling debt.  He's an adviser to Leo O'Bannon (Albert Finney), a powerful crime boss in Prohibition-era Citytown.  When the movie opens, Leo is having a heated discussion with Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), a rival crime boss with whom he has enjoyed a tense, but respectful peace.

They're presently at odds about what to do with a bookie named Bernie (John Turturro).  Caspar is certain that Bernie has been screwing him out of money and wants to have him killed.  But Leo is currently protecting Bernie because Leo is dating Bernie's sister, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden).

Tom advises Leo to give up Bernie to avoid having the situation escalate.  Leo refuses, and then one day one of his guys shows up dead in an alley.  Taking this as a sign that the gauntlet has been thrown down, Leo declares a full-out gang war.

After some initial casualties, Tom tries to convince Leo to give up Bernie and end the war.  In the process, he reveals that he has been having an affair with Verna, which causes Leo to flip out and... well, I don't know if "fire" is the word you use when describing gang affairs, but basically that's what he does.  Leo fires Tom.

Tom, now a free agent smart guy, offers his services to Caspar.  As a show of good faith, Caspar demands that Tom take Bernie out to Miller's Crossing, an isolated road in the woods, and kill him.  Tom can't bring himself to shoot him, and Bernie disappears...

...for about a scene.  Bernie re-appears in Tom's apartment one night and threatens to reveal that he's still alive unless Tom pays him.  From here to the end, you realize that the main conflict in the film is really the one between Tom and Bernie.  Even though Tom has bigger fish to fry and is under threat from many other dangers, Bernie is always a manipulative thorn in his side.

This is really the heart of the film: manipulation.  Tom is not an especially brave or strong protagonist.  He's not even particularly smart.  But he's got a good instinct for how people will react and he knows how to pull strings.  Tom is a schemer, and Miller's Crossing is just one big game for him to practice his craft.

Bernie is his foil and ultimately his arch-nemesis: another schemer who looks for opportunity at every turn.  If the movie was sappier, you could easily see it being a buddy comedy.  In fact, I think Turturro almost plays Bernie as if he's expecting to be Tom's sidekick.  Kind of like a darker version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Eventually, Tom gathers enough intel that he's able to set up Caspar and Bernie against each other in a final confrontation.

It's a tense and brilliant thriller that is often hilarious and never slow.  A great character study at the same time that it's a stylish and thought-provoking gangster film.

Now I'll Talk About Mink's Character

Did I mention before that there's a lot of stuff that happens in this movie?  I really want to make that clear, because I fear that somebody who's never seen the movie will read this and be like, "Hey, this random guy on the Internet loved it, I might as well give it a shot," and then they'll watch and be confused and be like, "What the fuck, random guy on the Internet?  I didn't understand this at all.  Your stars are lies."

The point is, it's so easy to miss stuff that I feel like I oughta mention a few of the subtler plot points to help fellow viewers avoid some frustration.  And by "subtler plot points," I mean virtually everything involving Steve Buscemi's character, Mink.

Mink is arguably the most important character in the film, His saga is reduced to a handful of lines and maybe ninety seconds of screen time, at most.  And yet Mink is at the heart of all the instigating action.  So if you think you missed something important... you did.  (I actually had to dig up a copy of the film's screenplay to make sure I actually had all the correct information for this recap - that should tell you just how little attention is called to this character in the final film.)

First of all: the whole war between Caspar and Leo gets started by Mink purely by accident.  Here's how.

Mink is gay.  He is having a fling with the big, heavy, intimidating guy that works for Caspar ("The Dane").  Mink is also being seduced by Bernie for more nefarious purposes, both financial and personal.

Mink is terrified that the Dane will discover that he is cheating on him, and since the Dane has a notoriously bad temper, Mink fears what the Dane will do to him.

When Leo first has a spat with Caspar, he asks one of his thugs, Rug Daniels, to tail Verna in order to watch her and keep her safe.  Rug does this and follows Verna around.  She meets up with Mink and they wander off together for an innocent night on the town.

Mink sees that they're being followed and, freaked out, shoots Rug.  (Verna may or may not have helped Mink dump the body in an alley... this part is still unclear to me, even now.)  The movie only shows you the aftermath, where a couple of kids find a dead guy with a toupee - that's Rug.  This is pretty much the first part of this story that appears on screen.

Leo's guys misunderstand his death as being a hit ordered by Caspar, so they go to war.

Now, fast forward a bit.  After Tom lets Bernie go, Bernie realizes that he needs a corpse in order to keep his "death" official.  So Bernie calls up Mink and kills him.  Then he dumps Mink's body at Miller's Crossing so that nobody suspects he's still alive.  You never actually see any of this happen either.

The upshot is that the Dane is understandably pissed off when he finds out that Mink is dead - not necessarily because he hates Tom, but because he loved Mink - and, realizing that Tom is at least indirectly to blame, he tries to kill Tom.  This leads to Caspar killing the Dane, which leads to Tom being able to set up Caspar to be killed by Bernie, which then allows the movie to end the way it does.

Virtually all of this information is buried behind slang, sneers, and cutaway shots. In fact, I think it's probably the most complicated off-screen story that has ever been told in a movie.

Ironically, the on-screen action of the movie is all about manipulative, scheming thugs trying to outsmart each other with carefully-crafted plans, but the off-screen action is all about chance events that completely mess up everybody's plans. If Bernie is a foil to Tom, then Mink is parody of them both.

The Part About Quirky Dialogue

I love the dialogue in this movie.  It's a bit overblown, a bit cheesy, and a bit histrionic, but damn if it isn't quotable.

Virtually every beat in the movie sounds and feels like a line from another world - not just another era.  Characters say terms that I'm not convinced were ever popular, but it all works.  Snippets have worked their way into my daily lingo.  "Just speculating a hypothesis" is one of my go to expressions, and I have to remind myself not to ask "What's the rumpus?" lest I come across as a douchey hipster.

And of course, whenever I'm upset about something that happened at work, I always think, "It's a question of ethics...."

I don't have any deep analysis on the dialogue or anything like that, but I wanted to be sure that I mentioned it.  Good on ya, Coens.

The Bit Where I Struggle to Give a Good Analysis of Character Motivation

Miller's Crossing is a dense movie about chance events, complicated schemes, and opportunism.  It's an ordeal to unpack all the different ways that each character impacts one another.  But probably the most challenging thing about the film is trying to pin down Tom's motivation throughout.  I've seen the movie probably a dozen or more times and I'm still not sure I understand.  I might not be smart enough to get this.  Nevertheless, here's my brilliant conclusion.  You ready?

Tom has no goddamn clue what to do.

He just knows he can't let other people know that he doesn't know.  Because pretending to know things is the only thing he knows how to do.  So the entire movie is basically a long, difficult CYA experience gone wrong.

Tom presents himself as a cold and calculating person.  He's certainly cold; he persistently holds people at a distance - including (or maybe especially) his closest friends.  And yet, somehow, despite having no particular affinity for people, Tom is supposed to be an excellent judge of character; this is the whole reason he is employed by Leo in the first place.

But then Tom goes head to head with Bernie, which leads to two major gaffes throughout the film.  First is perhaps the most famous scene in the film where Tom lets Bernie go free instead of killing him as he is instructed, and second is when Tom allows Bernie to get the drop on him at his apartment building.  In both cases, Tom underestimates Bernie's capacity for harm and misjudges his intent.

I get the impression that Tom just plays things by ear, but he's really good at keeping his cool and looking like he knows what he's doing.  He can plan ahead, sure, but what it really comes down to is a matter of chance.  He has surrendered to the unpredictability of the world and succeeds not by brilliant plans, but rather by brilliant reflexes.  Perhaps this is the true value of Mink's nearly arbitrary meddling with the narrative: Tom can survive because he knows in his heart that you can never control a guy like Mink, whereas Bernie feels like he's smart enough to seduce Mink and make him do his bidding.  It's a very Zen story in some ways.

Tom has a few telling exchanges with Verna where he just about confesses as much.  One of his most famous lines in the movie: "Nobody knows anybody.  Not that well."  If that's really how Tom feels, then how can he justify his own job?  Isn't knowing people well exactly what he's paid to do?

The surface takeaway from the ending is that Tom intended to protect Leo all along and that by pretending to be on Caspar's side, he was really just working to cement Leo's power.  I'm not sure I can buy that, particularly since a) Tom would have avoided a shitload of problems if he never joined Caspar in the first place, and b) Tom doesn't rejoin Leo once all is said and done.  I think it's simply a gut reaction: Tom stumbled into a good opportunity to play Caspar and Bernie against each other, and once they were both out of the picture, Tom no longer had a good reason to stay involved in anybody's affairs.  He could just pay his gambling debt and walk away.

Ultimately, I don't think Tom really cared whether or not he could protect Leo.  He probably wasn't opposed to the idea, but any benefit to Leo was purely coincidental to the benefit he'd grant to himself.

Final Thoughts

You know, it's easy to forget this, but Miller's Crossing has a whole bunch of gay gangsters in it.  While doing some reading to prep for this review, I came across a few write-ups that dug into some possible subtext and even went so far as to say that Tom is gay and in love with Leo.  It's an interesting take, but as I mentioned above, I don't buy it.  I don't think Tom has the capacity to love anybody more than himself.

Still... this is a movie about gay gangsters.  I'm not sure I can think of any other movie that would fit into that subgenre, and Miller's Crossing almost did it by accident.  Look at that... fifteen years after my first viewing and I'm still discovering new ways to think about it.