Friday, September 2, 2016

Reading the Coens "Millers Crossing"

The Coen brothers are not Christian artists, but they are masters of their craft. And, while they appear to pay close attention to every detail in their stories and use every subtlety to advance their story, like most postmodern artists, they avoid being too specific about the meaning in their films. So, even though I am bringing my own preconceptions to their work that sees things likely unintended by them, I celebrate truth wherever I find it. 

Miller’s Crossing (1990) 

“Nobody knows anybody. Not that well.” 

This may be the most complex Coen plot. An attempt at simplifying would go as follows: Tom is the right hand man of Leo, the big boss in a 1920s mob-run town. Leo angers Caspar (a minor mob boss) by not allowing him to kill a bookie named Bernie. The reason is that Bernie is Leo’s girlfriend’s brother. Her name is Verna, and she also happens to be seeing Tom. A mob war ensues and Tom crosses sides to work for Caspar after Leo fids out about Verna. However, Tom’s loyalty never shifts and he wins the war for Leo with subterfuge.

Tom is a man governed by logic; never letting his emotions show. He does what makes sense. He sees emotions as a danger because they so easily cause a man to go against logic. In this film Tom comes close to dying when he lets emotions take charge. And he certainly gets beat near death several times, loses his best friend, his girl, and ends up having to commit murder to set things right. However, it isn’t really his emotional actions that cause him these problems. It is Leo’s irrational decision making.

Leo refuses to let Caspar kill Bernie because he doesn’t want to hurt Verna. We would think that Tom would be in agreement with this, as he is sleeping with Verna as well. But Tom is just using Verna. Once again emotions don’t apply for Tom. We get the impression that Verna prefers Tom. She wants him to open up to her. She wants him to ask her to run away with him. She is just using Leo for security. And, when Tom reveals the affair to Leo, (because logic demands that he do so to convince Leo to make the right play) she thinks that he did it to break her and Leo up.

The only moment in the film where Tom appears to make an illogical choice, perhaps governed by emotions, is when he is ordered to kill Bernie. Bernie pleads and Tom spares his life. And sure enough, this moment comes back to haunt Tom. The story—at least the way that the Coens are telling it—punishes Tom for this moment of weakness.

People might appeal to the loyalty that Tom shows Leo as another moment of emotional weakness. But it is hard to see any other way for the story to play out. Tom’s loyalty is an aspect of the story, but it could almost more easily be seen as one of the logical principles that govern Tom’s life. It is hard to come up with another resolution where Tom betrays Leo that makes sense under the circumstances. Tom does what he has to to survive, and once the danger is past he leaves. Once things return to “normal” and he could go back to the way things were with Leo, he doesn’t. He knows that he can’t trust Leo to do the sensible thing anymore.

The Coens stories are full of men facing terrible consequences for stupid decisions they have made. Usually for money, sometimes for love. Here we have a more enigmatic plot. Tom suffers but not directly for anything he has done. Sure, he is a gambler and a drunk, but the consequences of those shortcomings are his normal life, and things he is prepared to deal with. It is the actions of others that destroy life as he knows it. In the end, the Coens seem to be meditating on the horrifying aspect of life where we are surrounded by other sinful people exercising their free will in stupid ways that mess things up for everyone.

We may not live in a prohibition-era mob-run ton, but we are surrounded by people making terrible life choices, ourselves included. And, where we might be willing to face the music for our own sins, we need to realize that we will often suffer for the choices of others as well.

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