Ain't It The Life: The Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing
“Nobody knows anybody. Not that well.”
Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) snappily replies with this line several times throughout the Coen Brothers’ 1990 neo-noir gangster film Miller’s Crossing. Tom’s the guy who sees all the angles in a given situation, but can never seem to make them work for himself. Despite being “the guy behind the guy” to Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney, in a scene-stealing mob boss role), Reagan can’t seem to get his finances in any sort of order due to a crippling gambling habit, and can’t help himself but fall for Leo’s moll, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), a venom-spouting femme fatale if ever there were one.
In short, Tom can see what everyone else’s play is going to be, but doesn’t seem to be able to get one going on his own. He’s convinced Leo that he could, if he wanted to, though. And as Tom himself notes to the mayor, perception of strength is far more crucial to keeping power than showing it brashly:
“You don't hold elected office in this town. You run it because people think you do. They stop thinking it, you stop running it.”
Up to his eyeballs in gambling debts to every bookie in town, running around in the dark with his boss’s girl, and covering up Verna’s murder of one of Leo’s men who found out about her affair with Tom, Tom himself is in a bit of a bind.
In perhaps the most complicated example of the “long con” put to film, Tom plays his hand slowly: he comes clean to Leo about his affair with Verna, slow-plays into a crew of other gangsters who want Verna’s brother dead, kicks off a gang war that involves both Leo’s and his new gang (as well as the police), sets rivals within every power structure he touches against one another, pays off his gambling tab, and comes out clean on the other side of all of it, while dodging pesky things like mercy or love. But of course, this is a Coen Brothers film, so… Tom doesn’t change as a person. His first call is to his bookie to get a line on the latest wagers. The only line Tom can’t seem to see is the one leading from his gambling to the long river of blood he just waded through.
It’s not only Tom who is unable to better themselves, in Miller’s Crossing nobody does, or can. Leo insists on staying by Verna, even after her affair with Tom is outed. Verna’s brother, Bernie (John Turturro, in perhaps the slimiest role he’s ever played) pulls grifts on everyone, just as easily as he breathes, just because he sees that he can. Verna spouts venom and plays Leo like a fiddle for her own protection and benefit, to the very end taking him for anything she can get. Even Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) stays his same paranoid, unsure self — listening to the strongest voice in the room, which is never his own — to the bitter end.
The inability of these characters to change or adapt with their environment of ever-shifting loyalties and circumstances is reason the entire mess of a plot they find themselves in gets put into motion. Bernie screws over Caspar one too many times, Caspar doesn’t get the okay from Leo to take him out, Verna plays Leo to protect Bernie, Tom can’t keep his hands off of Verna, Leo can’t quit Verna, Tom can’t stop making bad bets. The characters in Miller’s Crossing are all habitually picking at scabs—an unhealthy but compulsive habit.
They’re all, like Tom remarks, “a man chasing his hat.” And there’s nothing sadder than that.