The third of nineteen reflections on the Coen Brothers’ filmography and the season of Lent. [View Series]
by guest writer Chad Hill
Mercy is a rare virtue to find in criminal circles, but perhaps not for the reasons you may think. Traditionally masculine ideals consider it a sign of weakness, a lack of strong will or conviction. But the violent and winding events of Joel and Ethan Coen’s prohibition-era gangland drama Miller’s Crossing prove that notion incorrect. In Coen-land, clemency only precipitates tragedy. If tolerated, it becomes a force powerful enough to break the world.
The first act of mercy arrives in the opening scene. The Italian gangster Johnny Caspar is sitting in the office of Leo, the Irish boss and patriarchal God figure that runs the film’s unnamed city. Caspar’s lost a lot of money betting on a fight that he himself fixed. He knows the bookie with loose lips that ruined his odds: Bernie Bernbaum. And he wants him dead. But Leo’s in charge, and Leo will have to approve the hit.
Unfortunately for everyone, Leo is in love with Bernie’s sister, Verna. Leo refuses the request, putting his protection over Bernie. Tom Reagan, Leo’s right-hand man and the film’s consistent “Smartest Guy in the Room”, advises his boss to let Caspar have justice. Tom fears the start of a gang war in retaliation and knows a cheating bookie isn’t worth the trouble. Tom is proven right when Leo later faces down an attempted assassination.
Most of Miller’s Crossing is played fairly straight and serious, but this opening spins on a wonderful joke that sets up the ironic moral universe of the film. Organized crime directly flaunts traditional law and order, but even these groups have their own sets of rules to go by. “I’m talkin’ about ethics,” bemoans the crime boss about his grievance. To these men, a fixed fight is perfectly ethical. A rogue bookie breaks the machinery.
The mystifying, inscrutable workings of inflexible moral universes are the currency filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen have long trafficked in their films. It takes the form of cosmic farce in A Serious Man, winking irony in Fargo, fickle fates in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and cold, cruel nihilism in No Country for Old Men. All have the sense of a greater force beyond the control of the people within the narrative. However, Miller’s Crossing makes the laws of its universe clear, hearkening back to an Old Testament-style vision of law and justice. Violation of the law demands retribution, and denying that sows chaos, as it did for the Israelites who repeatedly, willfully broke the laws of their God before begging His mercy.
After a falling out with Leo, Tom joins Caspar’s ranks to see if he can calm tensions from their side. To prove his loyalty, Tom is taken out to the titular forest and ordered to kill a captured Bernie. The bookie desperately pleas for his life as they walk through the trees in one of actor John Turturro’s most emotionally wrenching moments. But this time, Tom’s own heart gets in the way. Instead of taking the man’s life, he spares it. As with the first time, this leniency only causes further problems, as Bernie later blackmails Tom with his continued existence to carry out a hit on Caspar.
A lot of people die for Bernie to live, some of them at Bernie’s own hands. Tom spends most of the film trying to reestablish the peace in whatever way he can out of that most valued of gangster virtues: loyalty to Leo. Tom admits his own ongoing affair with Verna to Leo to prove her duplicity, knowing the admission will cause Leo to turn on him. When that fails, Tom works to undermine Caspar’s group from within.
Tom’s actions aren’t entirely honest, but the film does consider them righteous in their own way. When God decides to abdicate duty to the law, someone else will have to step in to fulfill it. In the season of Lent, those who’ve sinned wait and hope for the world to be set right through God’s absolution. Yet in Miller’s Crossing, as in an imperfect world, there can be no peace in the moral fabric of the universe so long as the forces of love and mercy are acting within it. This is both humanity’s greatest hope and greatest tragedy that their God has a reliably gracious heart.