Matters of ethics are at the core of most (if not all) films by Joel and Ethan Coen. They tend to show us worlds where morality is rather polar; clearly delineated but constantly misunderstood by the characters. Their third film, Miller’s Crossing, opens with a character hammering home the importance of ethical behavior, but despite beginning with such an explicit statement of theme, this film has the most dubious sense of morality of any work by the Coens. Only A Serious Man surpasses it in this regard, but that film dealt with a universe that only appeared to be amoral.
The world of Miller’s Crossing seems to be truly absent of rules, or at least of rule-followers, which a Coen filter translates as one full of chaos and disaster. That might make it easy to see this film as “lesser Coen,” an okay work that is dwarfed by the masterpieces they would come to make. That isn’t a wholly unfair take, as they have certainly made many things better than this in their career, but it does a disservice to Miller’s Crossing to judge it only in the context of their later work. It sticks out in many ways, yes, but those happen to be some of its most interesting aspects.
In playing with the tropes of gangster and noir films — and make no mistake, this is as much inspired by film noir as anything else — it subverts pre-existing subversions. There’s no “they’re evil, but…” characterization, no one whose actions are ignorable by virtue of more approachable character traits. But it would be one thing to just have a cast full of irredeemable bastards. Miller’s Crossing makes a point of giving many of them traditional signifiers of innocence, or at least things that would traditionally help us forgive immorality, in their first appearances.
The film opens with a direct reference to The Godfather’s first scene, with a mob boss and his primary advisor hearing a request. Tom (Gabriel Byrne), our main character, appears to be a reasonable and intelligent man, a thinker with no stomach for violence. Leo (Albert Finney), his boss, comes across as naïve but fair-minded. In another film, these would be reason enough to invest in these characters, framing them as protagonists and by extension framing their actions as at least somewhat justifiable.
But it’s all a smokescreen. Miller’s Crossing has no illusions about how despicable these people are, but it keeps reminding us of these traits that we are conditioned to find endearing. When Tom decides to spare Bernie (John Turturro) in the titular forest, why is he unable to pull the trigger? Is it because of a subconscious moral urge against murder, or is it simply out of defiance to Caspar (Jon Polito)? When Bernie compels him to “Look in your heart,” is this the tipping point we’re led to believe that it is?
The film toys with us throughout, reversing our view of Tom again and again. We cheer when he hits an enormous thug with a chair rather than submit to a beating, but the thug’s pained, emotional, and very personal response removes the act’s association with the stereotypical roguish hero. It’s not until the final scenes that Miller’s Crossing definitively (and bluntly) reveals Tom’s true character.
This is also very much a film about masculinity, poking fun at the hyper-manly caricatures so often seen in straightforward gangster and noir films. As mentioned, we have the scene where the big tough thug is deeply upset when Tom hits him with a chair, running out of the room to go get his boss. Tom himself, embodying both the cool-headed, rational mob advisor and the brusque private detective archetypes, fails to keep calm when he’s being driven back to Miller’s Crossing to face his lie. He vomits in panicked anticipation of his deception being uncovered. He only survives because of something he had not anticipated, a clear counter to this character type’s usual confidence in the face of overwhelming odds.
There are also a few gay characters in this film; though their sexuality is only relevant in tangential plot terms, they are hardly crude stereotypes. At the end of the film, Leo reveals that Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) has proposed to him, which even in 2015 would unfortunately be side-eyed by many. Are the Coens critiquing the toxic vein of masculine behavior that runs through these genres, or is the joke on men who exhibit non-masculine traits? It’s a little of both, disappointing as the latter option may be, but it’s not as though it’s there for its own sake. It’s part of the film’s larger genre deconstruction, so tagging Miller’s Crossing as progressive or regressive may not be worthwhile criticism. There is value in its tearing down of masculine archetypes, regardless of possible harsher implications in the other direction. Miller’s Crossing shows these characters as venal and brutal, and it simultaneously strips them of recognizable masculine signifiers. If one had to boil down the film to a sentence, it seems to be shouting this into a bullhorn: “There’s nothing manly about being an asshole.”
That’s where Miller’s Crossing re-enters familiar Coen territory. It’s all a matter of ethics, as Caspar insists in the opening scene, but the film wants us to reconsider what that means in a cinematic context. How much are we willing to forgive on-screen, and why? Perhaps we only project our hearts onto characters who don’t have any, and we can’t see them as evil because it would mean acknowledging that we ourselves are capable of evil. “What heart?” says Tom, refusing to be projected onto. The Coens won’t let us see ourselves in him. We are not permitted to idolize or identify with him. It’s strangely antagonistic filmmaking, but it makes Miller’s Crossing a fascinating and lasting work of art.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox