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.
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.
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.