© 2013 by James Clark
Taking the measure of a Coens’ film (Miller’s Crossing ) right after immersion in a film by Wong Kar Wai (and closely following brushes with Terrence Malick, Quentin Tarantino, Nicolas Refn, Kim Nguyen and Lars von Trier) induces a sense of the former effort having a somewhat stand-offish comportment to its revelations. Blood Simple (1984), their first, would be quite unique in soaking up the surreal features of Malick’s Badlands (1973), so redolent of that contrarian and intimate reservoir, Kiss Me Deadly, and so struck by a masterwork of Surrealist filmmaking, namely, Robert Bresson’s, Mouchette. This link would also be introducing eventuation very conversant with solitary consciousness. As thus pitched, the initial and solitary inspiration (from Malick) impinges upon an enterprise having chosen a brotherhood duality of discernment.
The Surrealist enthusiasm of the freshmen brothers comes unstuck in the course of their subsequent extremity, Raising Arizona (1987), a film far more stridently absurdist than effectively inhabiting the prospect of attaining to the intimacy of the surreal. After that slightly bilious romp, they turned to what was eventually to become Miller’s Crossing (during development tentatively referred to as “The Big Head”). In trying to right their ship of discovery along lines of blue-chip investigation, they came up empty at the preparatory stage (a case of twofold writer’s block). Hence they shifted to a study of another collection of perverse irritants (Barton Fink [1991 release date]—the writing of which they managed to whip off in three weeks—no blocks in that area—with an icing of David Lynch’s surreal, Eraserhead.) And then they returned to their attempt to find a cogent tuning for Miller’s Crossing. How did they do?
Though in the eventual production the duo demonstrate that they did reach a level of impressive discovery, they also show that the full-scale sensuality of their inaugural foray is not for them. (This recoil from Gallic audacity is somewhat comparable to Tim Burton’s reorganization after his opening with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. There he had the good fortune to work with a true Surrealist [actor, Paul Reubens], and only quite a bit later [and once and for all], with the film Edward Scissorhands, did he again focus his muse to the point of major impact, while tending, in the rest of his work, to generally abate into fun house weirdness, which is, of course, not the same thing as playable illumination.) That is not, however, to dismiss the work in question and those films following it as somewhat crippled by a sophomore jinx. The way the boys have regrouped is daring and fruitful; and it takes a while to fully grasp where they are taking it. For starters, let’s appreciate that at the outset of his recent film, The Grandmaster, Wong Kar Wai—a true master of incisive filmic tone—did some jamming with the outset of Miller’s Crossing.
The Coens’ drive to rough up powerful clans and cultures, by placing some of their members in situations where they unwittingly expose how ludicrous they are in cleaving to heavily subscribed to ways and means could not be expunged; and so their self-cure for writer’s block would entail transforming that pettiness to operate at a more comprehensive and disinterested level. What could Wong Kar Wai have seen, in Miller’s Crossing, which haunted him for years? The first image we see there is a large, black and stylish fedora on a forest floor, being lifted by a gust of wind and trailing off into the beckoning greenery. An embattled protagonist, Tom Regan, comes to be seen as dreaming this event within the (for him) vaguely unsettling sting of the epithet of “high-hatting” various thugs he’s put himself close to. As we know, The Grandmaster begins with the conspicuously more complete Ip Man battling with crude enemies. His stylish hat is an indicator of his being alone in a crowd. Whereas Wong’s protagonist is a suave gladiator within the underground kingdom of kung fu jousting, the Coens give us a Prohibition-era right hand man to a crime boss who has the Mayor and Chief of Police in his pocket, but is about to be unseated for failing to follow Tom’s advice to allow a rat fink (played by John Turturro, star of Barton Fink) to be exterminated by an up-and-coming gangster who, directly after the opening scene, is heard—much as the challenging Master of the North, in the second scene of The Grandmaster—to give a little oration about the importance of “ethics.” Coming upon formal and tonal affinities between the figure of Tom and the circumstances of Ip Man, Wong would feel compelled to sit in on the boys’ shady composition, by way of offering for consideration and delight his own, more diffident, “deferential” approach (to use the kung fu film’s Tai Chi Master’s precept) to a Prohibition Era that promises never to go away.
Actors, Gabriel Byrne and Tony Leung, playing the parts of Tom and Ip Man, constitute (in their handsome, even winsome, poise) a dual focal point from which two intriguingly disparate cinematic cultivations emanate. Wong’s gossamer distillations, then, would delight in there being a stunningly rude take upon “regrets” by means of which to establish his own politeness within a project of synthesis with as much staying power as that Ice Age of prohibition of such urgent interest to avant-garde endeavors. (Right after the flight of the black hat [giving off a sense of a Black Hole in a universe of variable glitter], there is the visual of ice cubes being added to a Scotch glass to open a rancorous conference. Ice and snow are major products in The Grandmaster, where promising topspin ominously freezes over.) Erecting, as they do, a narrative about incendiary appetite for material and attitudinal advantage—lightly based, as was Blood Simple, upon Dashiell Hammett’s crime novel, Red Harvest—the Coens would have at their itchy trigger fingertips a means (skirting upon Dadaist virulence) of evoking dimensions of violent greed far outstripping that of illegally generating cash flow. Here’s how it works in specific terms. The disagreement about the killing of the fink consists of the leaders of two gangs—that of Tom’s flush corporation being Irish; and that of the rapidly climbing rival being Italian. The musical theme motif is a Celtic lilt with a sweet central melody and a melancholy follow-through. The self-dramatization of Leo (the leader) and Tom, the erudite gamester (Anyone having read Irish football columns will find continuity in Tom’s going for poetry where you’d expect only prose) is continually caught up short by the grace notes rescuing the soundtrack from bathos. And yet, when Leo goes on a rampage against an invasion from the forces of Italy, a keening rendition of “Danny Boy” applies a needle over and above the histrionic action. Johnny Caspar, the force from another angle of extreme self-assertion, is not so much about irredeemable blarney as about using the cover of sermonizing to proceed with an operatic binge of soaking up delectable glories. Caspar, like Leo, exudes his own brand of candor and vulnerable charm, all the while intent upon dominance. He comes to show us his doting upon his pampered and over-fed son; and casually declares to Tom (after asking, “You like kids?” and hearing “No,” in reply), “You’re missing out on a complete life…” His business off the top is not only to put a stop to Bernie Bernbaum’s sabotaging the fight-fixing aspect of his profit centre—“Ethically he’s kinda shaky”—but to vigorously, though indirectly, express an aversion to not only Jews but to Jews who are also gay. (The put-upon Irish Chief of Police in the employ of Leo declares to Tom (amidst the frenzy of engineering a bust on one of Caspar’s nightclubs), concerning their boss’ refusing to allow the execution, and thereby precipitating a gang war, “What’s one Hebrew less?” Tom shuts him up with stentorian agitation, by referring to Leo’s omnipotence in these matters. (The latter intones to Caspar in showing him the door, “You’re exactly as big as I let you be, and don’t forget it!”) But Tom, in face of issues of maintaining the status quo, actually concurs with the Chief’s reasoning. (His dividedness about Leo is an early-warning signal that, general appearances notwithstanding, he’s a bit more than a calculating poseur.)
Reasoning for advantage is flying everywhere in this movie. And the viewers’ task therein is to see their way clear to the drama’s revealing divergence between, on the one hand, reasoning as mere scheming, as calculation to satisfy physical comforts and self-aggrandizement, and, on the other hand, reasoning as provision of sufficient reasons, grounds—intentional motions that lead to decisively transcending calculative affairs. Leo tells a doubting Thomas (“Bad play, Leo,” is the latter’s kindly delivered assessment [coming out of a track record of sharp navigation] of the meeting , after Casper leaves, defiant and vowing, by implication, to make big trouble, much to Leo’s amusement—“Twist a pig’s ear. Watch him squeal!”), “We’ve faced worse odds…” And Tom has countered with, “Never without reason. It helps to have one!” (As such he’s in the process of maintaining a precedence of motivation over mathematics.) Leo’s reason, as it happens, for protecting Bernie from Caspar, is that he’s in love with and wants to marry Bernie’s sister, Verna, a figure who manages to make most of the participants in the vicious warfare look quite benign. The Coens have installed at the center of this chaotic drama the siblings, Verna and Bernie, to have us concentrate upon such lead-pipe malignancy (of reasoning) out there, and what, if anything, can be done about it. Coming so recently out of Nicolas Refn’s Only God Forgives, and the galactic perversities of Billy and his Mom (she of the platinum password, “…he had his reasons…”), we are struck by how the axis now in question gains toxicity from their cultural vocations. (At the end, during Bernie’s funeral, Leo wears a kippah in deference to his fiancée’s agenda of dominance that surpasses his own.) Verna not only goes on constant alert to shield her devious brother; but, as he tells Tom, in the course of seeing if the latter can do something about “that Dago who’s after me,” Verna and he are “twists”—“She’s a sick twist”—(a term that comes up often in Miller’s Crossing, and very germane to its cargo of poison, by reason of twisted dynamics and hence shallow reasoning). The full dialogue, covering this side of that avatar of self-centered equivocation, runs: “She’ll sleep with anyone. You know that. She even tried to teach me a thing or two about bed artistry…some crackpot idea about saving me from my friends.”
Tom is fired by Leo (pulverized, actually—though, unlike Refn’s Julian, his disfigurement is slight, as befitting rather bloodless, atmospheric predation, lots of tumbling downstairs in the throes of a deep-seated tailspin), after fruitlessly telling him—thinking to deliver a wake-up call about Verna being less than vernal—that he had slept with her the night before. And, now a member of Caspar’s army, he is assigned to pull the trigger on that sick twist that is located at his hotel due to Tom’s attractiveness to and gaining the confidence of Verna. Thus ensues a brilliant and rather appalling spate of stripping bare one of world history’s top dogs. Tom is behind the wheel of the car taking Bernie to the woods (to a spot known as Miller’s Crossing, a crossing point indeed for Tom) to be murdered, and this driver, seldom seen taking any kinetic initiatives, looks as if he’s losing his best friend. While he struggles with the perfidy of his own scheming and, moreover, the subsequent order to pull the trigger, his sinking sense of self-worth (overtaking a career of self-evasive, mawkish bravado and trite, heart-of-gold leprechaun charmer) emits a presence of mute and frozen desolation in face of which his victim not only screams, raves and flails about, but resorts to the full range of reasoning being found to be out of order. Leaving two other gunmen back at the car, Tom plods stiffly behind the jagged course of his hysterical target who pulls out all the stops in appealing to his (supposed) subscribing to (along with him) that gut-deprived causal easy street attaching to itself priorities of smarts and sentimentality. “You can’t do this!… You’re not like those guys… They’re different people from what we are… I never killed anybody… I jiggled a little bit of information, that’s all! It’s my nature, Tom. I’m just a grifter, a nobody! We’re not like those animals…[his nick-name, “the Smata,” covers, among other things, this intellection]… I’m praying to you…I can’t die…I hate the woods! I can’t die in the woods like a dumb animal…I’m praying to you! Look in your heart. I’m praying to you!” [This recalling Caspar—who comes at the web of a First Mover from a slightly different [but closely associated] angle—at the outset pleading his case for ethics, “that separates us from beasts of burden, beasts of prey…”] Tom fires into the forest floor. Bernie, who had been on his knees pleading, after a split second of imagining he’s survived death, realizes that Tom could not kill him (but not for the reasons he had rattled off). “God bless you,” he gushes. “Shut up!” Tom snarls. “I understand,” the sentimentalist croons. “Shut up!” Tom replies, having had quite a fill of ethics.
Bernie runs away, through the unsatisfactory forest. Tom goes back to the car and that world of ornate crime which had always seemed a natural habitat for the gifted and satisfied poseur he was, but that now, to all intents and purposes, he was not. Befuddled Caspar had often been impressed by Tom’s rendition of sang froid and defiant quips when he was being urged (often to the tune of beatings) to join the Italian side. “He’s got a lip on him!” he would enthuse. But now Leo’s former Lip had become noticeably less facile—a shift that endows the white-hot cynicism and startling political incorrectness of the early momentum (reaching explosive levels of global contempt during Bernie’s coming apart at the seams) with a level of tempering which it lacked when simply bringing to bear stagey 1930’s and 1940’s Hollywood gestures going off the rails and seemingly left at that.
That a stream of despised eventuation could mature, in the course of the action, to a factor of disinterested problematicness is a uniquely difficult film phenomenon to explicate. But we have the specifics of Tom’s evolution to enable conveying (somewhat) how the crisis at issue sneaks up on us. In addition to being a devotee to predictable Irish comforts, Tom is addicted to the unpredictable ways of gambling. As we first meet up with him, he is, in Leo’s words, without a winner in six weeks, inducing his fond and self-consciously generous boss—“Call me a big-hearted slob”—to pay off his bookie (a term tense with gambits of uncanny risk and canny calculation, impetuousness and circumspection), Lazar (the leper)—one of a quartet of such gamesters with loaded names, including Bernie (Burn Bomb) and his new boyfriend, Mink Larouie (an employee of Caspar’s, Bernie’s conduit of information about fixed fights [phony, hyped struggle] and long-standing love-interest of Caspar’s right-hand man, Eddie Dane [not quite a dame, and a barbeque pit of non-stop distemper, who relentlessly sees through to the instability of Tom’s pretension to being a crime executive]). (The bullish public stature of gays here is a fast-forward into the present day, sitting tipsily within a Machine-Age setting. Their sacrosanct bearing within that demi-monde comes to rest along with ethnic, religious and intellectual shibboleths.) Tom has obliquely relished sitting back and watching fat, sweaty and garrulous Caspar make a fool of himself and cry out against being “high-hatted” by the snide Irish words-swordsmen—and also watching Leo stupidly picking a fight. Diminutive Tom’s “Bad play, Leo” (while holding his Scotch glass as if he were in a tall, silent, tough-guy movie), is all of a piece with the posturing about refusing Leo’s help with his debts and correcting his pronunciation of “joie de vivre,” which the “slob” trots out as being dispersed by his refusal. (This lovely bit of screen writing sets in relief Tom’s hard-core refusal to go to the trouble of living joie de vivre while prettily mouthing it.)
With Tom, the Coens have installed, to a far more comprehensive outcome, the visual tics of the Hammett-classic’s The Maltese Falcon’s little Wilmer, a mobster in over his head. He not only offers no resistance at all to the various poundings he receives in the course of the gang war swirling around him; but, in barging into the Ladies Room of Leo’s night club/gin can to berate Verna about causing Leo to fall into a disastrous business move apropos of her overrated brother, he gets slugged across the room by that lady and, in a sorry facsimile of resilience, he gets up and throws his Scotch glass at her, missing, of course. (Also peeping into this spicy cuisine, we have little Alan Ladd, a memorable punching bag and operative for a crime boss, in Hammett’s, The Glass Key.) His somewhat more pointed dream life suggests itself with the vignette of the swirling hat, seen to be within a drunken stupor from which he awakens to find that Verna had won his actual (and far less resonant) hat in a poker game the night before. During his shifting allegiances in a town bubbling over with violent deaths, he preys upon one of Lazar’s underlings for another betting loan placed on a horse that actually falls down. The soft touch advises, “Lay off. Tom. You shouldn’t go deeper into the hole.” The film’s bouncy logic, though, tips us off that that Black Hole of his dreams is something he should “go deeper” into. Miller’s Crossing may portray its crime wave as a threadbare menace. But the anger of its thematic burden is so consistently venomous as to alert us to the essential deadliness of its vision. A seemingly casual transaction by the multiply-addicted Tom—“Tell them I want 500 on the nose”—rips the protagonist for his masochistic lack of viability. (In the same vein, “You’ll have to carry me for a few days…”) A cute urchin and his even cuter dog discover, in sparkling morning sunlight, the body of “Rug,” tasked by Leo to check on the nature of Verna’s nightlife. (She was in fact with Mink [who shot him], an indicator of her taste.) The scamp runs off with his wig, setting off, somehow, in its comedic charm a far more powerful sense of hopelessness than something overtly sick would have.
The clash of the appetites of Casper and Leo piles on loads of B-level dramatics—coming, of course, from B-level lives (which the Coens are in no mood to mitigate). One of the more disconcerting presentations within the hailstorms of hot lead is repeated locking of machine gun fire upon someone unable to find cover. The kinetically deficient bungler proceeds, then, into a grotesque dance, more life, the suggestion is, than he ever showed before. That wiggling that doesn’t begin to attain to loving motion is on nearly non-stop display in the restless ambitions of Verna. Embodied by the Grace Kelly-like physical and vocal composure of actress, Marcia Gay Harden, the figure of Verna can dislodge and inhabit vibes of affection while being fixedly bound to observances of personal and clan advantage. She tells Tom, “He’s my brother and I don’t want to see him get hurt… I’ll do what I have to do to protect Bernie…Bernie’s a decent guy… Yes, sneer at him like everybody else! People think he’s scum. Well, he’s not! What is this about? You want me to stop seeing Leo? Why don’t you say so?” (Not only are both of them puffing themselves up here as protectors of victimized loved ones. But she won’t let go of the self-flattering notion that Tom’s efforts are due to his being jealous of Leo’s having brought her into his orbit.) Later she will carry this egotistical tumor along with the studiously smokey music of her Veronica Lake-like voice and the fetching patter of teasing so redolent of Lauren Bacall, “Admit you’re jealous. And you’ve got a heart. Even though it may be small and feeble. And you can’t remember the last time you used it…You always go the long way to get what you want…Me…” (Tom’s saying nothing at this point is an indicator that he knows he has to bolt. As we watch him building up a head of steam to do the hitherto unthinkable, we recall that not long before, in the wrap-up phase of his embarrassing brawl with her in the Ladies Room, she had taunted, “I suppose you think you’ve raised hell.” And he had replied, in a way as unsatisfactory as it gets, “When I raise hell, you’ll know it!”) Then he has another instalment of that dream about the black hat, making him wakeful; and, she, waking up and hearing about the jist, supposes that he dreamed that the hat changed into something that puts him on easy street. He rebuts her with, not quite some suspense she would never buy into, but a sense of futility which is not exactly a no. “Nothing’s more foolish than a man chasing his [uncanny] hat!” Now, when both of them are cut adrift from Leo and the gravy train, she proposes they head somewhere else. Tom asks, “What about Bernie?” She, matter-of-factly, replies, “He could come with us.” His self-satisfied, crime anti-hero wit, in face of this alien becoming more preposterous by the minute, “Where would we go, Verna, Niagara Falls?” does not obviate the question about that third who is a crowd, who is not simply a test of his ruthlessness and sensitivity, but a test of his courage.
Bernie decides not to get out of town, and he crowds Tom toward killing Caspar—failure to do so involving being exposed as not having removed the Smata (a Yiddish term for napkin, a woman’s bandana and a black person; the boys would have used the misnomer, smart, to cover that sub-set). On our first seeing the Smata, he’s bragging to Tom about his many friends, about, that is, aligning oneself within powerful cliques. Tom reminds him that Verna, whom Bernie was wont to describe as a “sick twist,” “speaks highly of you.” Though a skinny guy, Bernie looks very much like Caspar’s pampered son, when he replies, from out of a vast menu of goodies, “Ya, well…the point is you stick with your own family.” Quickly divested of his new friend, Mink, whom he murders and dumps in the woods (a corpse to the good for Tom, being doubted by Caspar, as advised by the Dane), and murdering Caspar in an ambush, the smart guy finds he’s no longer a client of Tom’s very dubious protection agency and there is no one left alive to pin the murder on. (Sly Tom having, by nicely pointed lies, induced Caspar to kill Eddie Dane.) “Gotta be you,” Tom quietly, markedly calmly, tells him (the Smata now the picture of a flustered, B-movie patsy), in close vicinity to Caspar’s bloody, impaled body. He easily wheedles away the delirious killer’s gun, and aims, at long last, to rid himself (however gracelessly) of this insufferable entity. Bernie does an encore of the crying and pleading at Miller’s Crossing. He goes to the well once again: “Look in your heart!” he pronounces several times. Tom, no longer sustaining an advantageous self-image of great-heartedness, replies, “What heart?” and he shoots Bernie between his shifty eyes.
He goes on to perform a similar farewell to Leo at the subsequent funeral. Verna snubs him and proceeds to commandeer Leo’s car. Leo, on the other hand (back in profitable control of the City) and making excuses for his bundle of joy—“She’s under a lot of stress…”—congratulates Tom the invincible—“It was a smart play all round”—tells him, “I need you. Things could be the way they were…I forgive ya…” Tom, no longer a rogue convinced of his own charm, quietly tells his friend (still a friend but lost in a fog of his own, now hemorraging crippled reasoning), “I didn’t ask for that, and I don’t want it… Good-bye, Leo.” Leo walks away, restoring his preferred but now rather clandestine hat. Tom lowers his hat over his eyes, and looks up, showing eyes stricken as never before. The black hat does its little exit into the woods (where Bernie would not have wanted to be buried).
It’s an ending so redolent of a beginning, a hard beginning for a sensibility that used to be able to mock the likes of hapless Rug. “Not a bad guy…if looks, brains and personality don’t count.” Now headed for a regime where looks, brains and personality become remarkably downgraded, he listens to Leo gild his subversion of Caspar’s commands. “You could have told me why you did it [why you gave the impression that you were intent on clashing with me]?” Tom asks, from out of a most volatile regime, “You always know why you do things, Leo?” And when the latter replies, “Sure I do,” his presence conveys that he might as well be a million miles away.