Near the end of Miller’s Crossing, the hero, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), walks down a hallway on his way to meet someone. (Never mind who.) Tom has heard two gunshots; he knows there’s going to be trouble. The landlady stops him and says she, too, heard gunfire. He nods, telling her to go to the drugstore and call the police. Putting on a robe, she starts to leave, then stops and asks Tom, “Will my cats be all right?” “They’ll be fine,” Tom says.
That’s the sort of exchange we’ve come to expect from Joel and Ethan Coen (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona): incongruous humanity in the midst of chaos. As usual, Joel directed, Ethan produced, and they cowrote the script, which is highly convoluted, bristling with quirky dialogue (“If Caspar ain’t a stiff soon, I’m gonna start eating in restaurants”), and obsessed with tommy-guns, trees, and hats. A lot of the details and asides in Miller’s Crossing appear to be there for their own sweet sake — as if the Coens have wanted for a long time to capture such images as a hat tossed around by a breeze, or a street urchin swiping a dead man’s toupee. The images have a talismanic, almost fetishistic quality; they have their own dream logic.
Miller’s Crossing (named for a remote woodsy area where men are taken to die) unfolds in the late ’20s in some unidentified city — really, it’s The City, the idea of a prohibition-era town. Everything is run by Leo (Albert Finney), a powerful mob boss; Tom, the aforementioned hero, is his right-hand man. Both are in love with Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), a vamp whose brother Bernie (John Turturro), a double-dealing grifter, has run afoul of rival mobster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), who wants Bernie dead. Verna would like Bernie protected. Tom doesn’t care much either way, or he wouldn’t if Verna weren’t so keen on preserving Bernie’s hide. With all these tough guys (including Verna, who packs an eye-watering punch) buzzing around the fate of Bernie, a gang war erupts.
The movie has an authentic Irish melancholy; with its green, green design and mournful soundtrack by Carter Burwell, it might become a St. Patrick’s Day perennial. It begins with a parody of The Godfather‘s first scene, with the oily Johnny Caspar (Polito works DeVito-like magic in the role) holding forth about “et’ics.” Little do we know from this deadpan-farcical opener that Miller’s Crossing will actually evolve into a serious inquiry into ethics. As elaborately structured by the Coens, this is a movie that demands and rewards repeat viewings. We see Tom doing things that seem self-destructive or downright stupid, but he’s following his own blueprint to restore order to his drizzly corner of the world. Can any man be this smart? Tom almost seems to have read the screenplay. He is, in effect, a cipher, the author of this story, the invisible puppetmaster. He also gets beat up a lot (and never bleeds). There’s an element of the uncanny mixed in with this world of gin and heavy trenchcoats and unfiltered Luckies.
Miller’s Crossing is a grab bag of classic moments. The obvious one is the extended scene in which Tom leads the hysterical Bernie through the chilly woods of Miller’s Crossing; Turturro’s anguished performance brings you right inside Bernie’s terror and imprints the scene in your mind. Then there’s the show-stopper when two gunmen come to Leo’s house to kill him and he turns the tables in a triumphantly feral burst of violence. The movie certainly doesn’t shy away from the high notes. The violence, when it comes, is usually outrageously stylized, as in a Jacobean revenge drama. Yet the Coens also score with quiet moments: Tom’s musing about his odd dream of the floating hat; his combative, familiar rapport with Verna (played with cat-like sultriness by Harden); Caspar’s scenes with his dimwit little son; J.E. Freeman as the city’s bitchiest hit man, who sits around sneering at everyone — he’s the dark corner of every room.
Is the movie a sheer exercise in style? Partly; the Coens luxuriate in the set design, the snappy patter, the weighty retro-ness of the fictional city. But it’s also about the great pulp theme: Actions have consequences. Tom is just sharp enough to see the consequences and manipulate them with his actions. None of which helps him when he himself is guided through the barren trees at Miller’s Crossing. The bleak foliage mocks him, as it mocked Bernie and all the other unlucky men led to their certain dooms. When Tom dreams of his hat floating away, it’s floating through the leaves on the dirt floor of Miller’s Crossing. “It’s a mental state,” says Johnny Caspar in another context, and the more you think about the place — the lives and humanity lost among those trees — the more Caspar’s words resonate. “There’s nothing more ridiculous than a man chasing his hat,” Tom mutters, and in the world of Miller’s Crossing, there’s nothing more ridiculous than a man chasing his compassion in a place that values shrewdness more than kindness. In the end, the Coens pay tribute to both.