The thing no one will say about Miller’s Crossing is that that hat really does not work on Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Reagan. It doesn’t sit quite right on his head. This hat, a visual and at times narrative focal point of the film, lays awkwardly askew. It’s always on the verge of being blown right off his head, as easily by a gunshot as by a gust of wind. There’s no stability in the world of this film, nothing solid to lean on. Everything is chaos. “Nobody knows anybody.”
I first wrote about Miller’s Crossing four years ago at Audiences Everywhere, on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. Rereading that piece now, I found I came away with much the same impressions in 2019. Miller’s Crossing is interesting mostly as a precursor to the higher highs of the rest of the Coens’ career. It foreshadows films like A Serious Man and Fargo with its focus on ethics (or eh-tics, as Jon Polito’s Johnny Caspar so memorably puts it) and the perils of living in a universe without defined rules. They would go on to find more intriguing avenues to explore this idea than a familiar noir tale. Still, there’s an undeniable base thrill in watching scumbag criminals lie and cheat and outwit one another. And like the noir films that inspired it, it takes place in a chaotic, amoral world. I’m more interested in how the Coens would go on to explore worlds with distinct rules, inexplicable as they could be. But there’s still something straightforwardly compelling about this story of double-triple-quadruple-crossing gangsters.
Just as unrefined is the Coens’ camera. There’s little consistency of style in Miller’s Crossing. For every striking wide shot of small figures swallowed up by the forest, there’s a bizarre 180 whip-pan or comically quick zoom. It’s as “early film” as early films get, a work by directors still unsure if they’d get to make all the films they wanted to make, and thus were inclined to shove into one every idea they could come up with. The Coens of last year’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs are so much more self-assured. That film has a dependable, coherent aesthetic. The Coens of Miller’s Crossing seem far less confident. They have enough innate talent to carry them through, but it’s an understandably messy thing.
What still amuses me most about the film is its depiction of a world in which, free of universal law, people have made their own. What is acceptable and unacceptable is as incomprehensible as can be. My favorite scene comes early on, when Tom is left in a room to be intimidated and beaten by one of Caspar’s beefy enforcers. Tom asks him to stop so he can take off his jacket, and uses this as an opportunity to surprise the man and hit him with a chair. The man gingerly touches his broken nose and whines, “Jesus, Tom.” Tom’s refusal to fight fair isn’t the act of a roguish hero, but a slimy prick. He doesn’t play by the rules, and everyone around him pays the price.
Miller’s Crossing isn’t my favorite Coens film by a long shot. I don’t think it’s a misfire, though. There’s nothing wrong with making an average gangster movie. They execute on their influences well, and there’s some typically crackling dialogue along the way. It’s not a film I’ll ever be keen to revisit, but that’s okay. Not everything has to be a masterpiece.