Up is Down, Black is White
Ethan Coen once described Raising Arizona as “the last movie we made that made any significant amount of money.” That’s not entirely true—True Grit and No Country for Old Men were unqualified hits—but, generally speaking, Coen Brothers movies aren’t getting asses into theater seats, not past the standard New York-L..A.-in-time-to-qualify-for-Oscar-consideration arthouse runs anyway. Miller’s Crossing, their third movie, and the first with a generous budget (for them, at least), remains among the least profitable in the Coen filmography. It had the misfortune of opening against Goodfellas, a film within the same genre, but so different in style that they might as well be in different languages.
While Goodfellas is about the mob, Miller’s Crossing is an homage to mob movies, particularly those made in the 1940s. With its perfectly vintage set design and invented slang (women are “twists,” “getting the high hat” means you’re being disrespected), it feels deliberately artificial. It’s not quite accurate to describe it as pastiche, however, because while visually it comes off as a bit phony, it’s so densely plotted, with one double cross after another, that a second or third viewing might be required in order to catch everything (or you could cheat and read the Wikipedia summary, which mentions something I hadn't caught in previous viewings). Almost every character has some sort of agenda, some of them frustratingly oblique, and if you think that any of them are going to be resolved in a just and satisfying way, you’re going to be disappointed. As Blood Simple has already taught us, even when you think you’re doing the right thing, often it just blows up in your face.
No time is wasted on exposition, we don’t even know where it takes place. We’re just dropped right in the middle of the story, with a meeting between local mob boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney, in a marvelously understated performance, something he was rarely known for) and his rival, Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito). The two seem to have a wary peace with each other (or, at least, Caspar is aware that Leo has more clout with the Mayor and cops than he does), until the subject of small-time bookie Bernie Bernbaum comes up. Bernie’s been cheating Caspar out of profits, and Caspar wants Leo’s blessing to take him out, but Leo refuses. He’s vowed to protect Bernie, going directly against his own interests, but only Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), Leo’s taciturn right-hand man, knows why. It’s because Leo is in love with Bernie’s sister, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), and has promised her that he’ll be kept safe. Tom is dismayed that Leo won’t even consider the danger of protecting Bernie, let alone that he’s willing to put his reputation as boss on the line for some woman.
Complicating matters further is that Tom is also having an affair with Verna, though whatever he may feel for her, it doesn’t look like love. But that’s okay, because Verna, so chilly she practically cracks when she walks, doesn’t seem to want Tom for anything other than an occasional drinking buddy and bed warmer. All that matters to her is that Bernie is safe. You’d think from the way she talks about Bernie that he’s a helpless innocent in over his head with the Mafia, but no—played by John Turturro at possibly his slimiest, Bernie is a craven opportunist, who mocks Verna behind her back and even implies that she tried to engage him in incest when they were teens. When it would be so much easier for everyone, most of all himself, if he just left town, he turns Leo’s protection, and later Tom sparing his life, into blackmailing schemes, perceiving decency as weakness.
When trying to coerce Leo into giving up Bernie doesn’t work, Tom tries the nuclear tactic of admitting that he’s been seeing Verna too, believing it will spur Leo into action. It does—he throws Tom out of the operation, but not before beating him senseless in front of everyone. Stunned by what he perceives as Leo choosing Verna over him (though he ends things with her too), he immediately aligns himself with Caspar, helping him usurp Leo’s role as the local mob boss. After that, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Tom sets about sowing seeds of discord between Caspar and his own right-hand man, the fearsome Eddie the Dane (J.E. Freeman). Maybe he just likes wreaking a little havoc, or maybe it’s a convoluted way of proving to Leo where his loyalty actually lays. When he makes the disastrous decision to let Bernie go after Caspar orders him to kill him, we’re never sure if it’s out of deference to Verna, or to Leo, or if he just falls for Bernie’s sobbing protests of “You can’t kill me…look in your heart.”
Tom’s credo in life, as mentioned a few times in the film, is “Nobody knows anybody. Not that well.” He plays his cards very close to the vest, and seems perplexed at open displays of love. Leo loves Verna, Verna loves Bernie, Caspar loves his fat little son, even murderous Eddie the Dane has someone he cares about, his lover, Mink (Steve Buscemi, making his Coen Brothers debut along with John Turturro), who’s also tied up with Verna and Bernie. Don’t these people know that caring about someone gets you killed?
Verna thinks Tom wants her to stop seeing Leo so he can have her all for himself, but it doesn’t seem to be that so much as his disbelief that someone so transparently in it for herself as Verna could have such a grip on Leo, tough enough to take out an entire carload of would-be hitmen with a machine gun all by himself. It’s interesting to note that, save for a single moment at the end of the movie, Leo and Verna are never in the same scene together. We have no idea how she acts towards him, if she’s genuinely affectionate, a hell of an actress, or if Leo really is a sap who lets a pretty woman push him around, as Tom believes. “The two of us, we’re about bad enough to deserve each other,” Verna says to Tom, with weary cynicism in her voice, but it still tells us nothing about how she really feels about Leo, and Tom wouldn’t believe her anyway.
When Tom says “Nobody knows anybody, not really,” he thinks it’s proof that he understands the human condition pretty well, that he’s two steps ahead of everyone else. But instead, he’s a sucker too, and in the end he loses Leo, Verna, and maybe some of his soul. Bidding Leo farewell after turning down an offer to return to the way things used to be—as if such a thing was possible—Tom tilts his hat over his eyes so he can’t see Leo walk away from him, and so no one can see him. He’s right, nobody knows anybody. Least of all him.