Spoiler warning: I’m assuming you’ve seen this movie since it’s been nearly 30 years …
Often labelled as a gangster film, or even a neo-noir (although I wonder if that moniker is going to go the way of the dodo as the years go by) the Coen Brothers 1990 film, Miller’s Crossing, also has some things in common with the samurai film, Yojimbo, or its western copy, A Fistful of Dollars, in which the main characters play two criminal organizations against each other. But when I took a re-watch nearly 15 years after last seeing it and 27 years since I saw it for the first time on VHS, it felt to me like it’s also a coming of age story.
Now Tom Regan is not a teenager, not by any stretch of the imagination, but he is suffering through a crisis of identity. He’s asking himself who he is, what his values are, how merciful can he be and to whom ... above all who can he trust and who should he be truthful to.
“Nobody knows anybody,” Tom says near the start of the film, and even though he may not be aware of it, it applies to him too. Like many people, he doesn’t know himself, although he thinks he does. But as events unfold, he realizes that he doesn’t.
“Do you always know why you do things, Leo?” he tells his former boss when Leo O’Bannion asks him why he pretended to join Johnny Caspar’s gang.
“Course I do,” replies Leo.
Truth is Leo doesn’t and neither does Tom.
Leo knows at the start of the film that he should take Regan’s advice and allow Caspar to kill Bernie Bernbaum for messing up his racket.
“Think about what protecting Bernie gets us. Think about what offending Caspar loses us,” says Regan.
“C’mon Tommy, you know I don’t like to think,” replies Leo.
“Yeah, well think about whether you should start,” says Tom.
Leo knows what he should do, but he doesn’t like feeling like he’s being forced to do it. Plus, he doesn’t like Caspar all that much, so he lets his feelings invade his business and the gang war of the movie begins.
But Tom has his own Achilles’ heel, Verna Bernbaum, Bernie’s sister and Leo’s lover. Tom falls for her and sleeps with her, a fact that’s not obvious to anyone, but Mink, a low-level gangster who’s playing the two sides of the fence that run between Caspar’s strong man, Eddie Dane, and Bernie.
He’s Leo’s right-hand man and his friend. Why would he betray his boss and his friend? He doesn’t know. Verna admits to playing Leo so she can keep her brother safe, but Tom doesn’t know why he does what he does with Verna.
He tells Leo she’s just a grifter, like her brother, both because he wants to protect Leo from heartbreak and because he needs to assuage his guilt. But most importantly, he warns him because he wants to prevent Leo from a mistaken gang war with Caspar to help her brother. In fact, his need to protect Leo is stronger than his desire for Leo’s friendship, so he tells him why he thinks it was Verna, not Caspar, that killed the man who he sent to follow her.
“Maybe Rug knew something she didn’t like him knowing, and wouldn’t want you to know. He was following her. He knew who she was seeing. He knew where she was sleeping, and who with …,” says Tom.
“Maybes don’t make it so,” says Leo.
“They’re more than maybes. You’ve trusted me before and never lost anything by it. Trust me on this.”
“This is all too important,” says Leo.
“I don’t ask much, and I don’t ask often. Trust me on this.”
“Trust me on this or the hell with you.”
“You don’t mean that,” says Leo.
“She was at my place. The night Rug was following her. The night you dropped by,” says Tom.
Leo means so much to Tom that Tom rats himself out.
From now until near the end of the movie Leo and Tom are playing different sides. Verna leaves Leo and ends up in bed with Tom again.
“What’re ya chewing over? says Verna.
“What was it?”
“Just a dream. I was walking in the woods … don’t know why, but the wind came up and blew my hat off.”
“And you chased it right? You ran and ran and finally caught up to it and picked it up, but it wasn’t a hat anymore. It had changed into something else—something wonderful.”
“No. It stayed a hat. And no, I didn’t chase it. I watched it blow away … nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat.”
Tom goes to Caspar and offers his service, but he’s tested by Caspar and the Dane to prove his loyalty. He has to take Bernie out into Miller’s Crossing and shoot him. In the most brilliant scene and mesmerizing performance of the film … one of the best of all time, Bernie prays to Tom to look into his heart to see that he can’t kill him.
Once Tom lets him go Tom becomes a grifter, much like Bernie and Leo. But unlike them he’s not doing it to gain power or wealth, he’s doing it to survive. He brandishes lies to Caspar, Dane, and just about anyone else he has to. And it’s this struggle with truth that is another central conflict of the film and the central one to Tom.
“It’s a question of ethics. Everything above board so everybody knows who’s a friend and who’s an enemy,” says Caspar.
Like the Greek commander Ulysses, Tom is always a step ahead of everybody else and manipulates the truth to keep everyone off balance so no one can tell that he’s playing both sides against the middle. Everyone except the Dane that is, who is the only other main character aside from Caspar who doesn’t regularly trade in deceit. But it’s Tom who’s the master of it.
When Bernie comes back to Tom’s apartment to put the squeeze on him for keeping dead, Tom turns the tables on him and tells him unless he shows up at his place at 4 a.m. with $2,000, he’ll tell Caspar that Bernie is still kicking.
Next, Tom tries to drive a wedge between Caspar and the Dane. He suggests that the Dane is cheating Caspar. The Dane is only pretending that he thinks Bernie is still alive, so he can continue to blame Bernie for spilling the beans on the fixed fights when in reality it’s the Dane who’s doing it. Why? Simple, the Dane is tired of playing second-fiddle.
Caspar doesn’t believe it. So he switches to the idea that the Dane and Mink are teaming up and he can prove it. Mink wants out, so he’s coming to Tom’s place at 4 am for a payoff to skip town. Caspar’s faith is shaken. Caspar doesn’t know whether to believe Tom or the Dane and he backs the wrong horse and puts one in Dane’s brain.
They then go to Tom’s apartment where Caspar goes in first. Tom follows and comes across Caspar’s head hanging over the staircase with Bernie sitting in the corner of the stairwell. Tom sweet talks Bernie into giving him the gun, saying they’ll pin the murder on the Dane. After Tom gets Bernie to fill in all the loose ends, who killed Mink (Bernie), who killed Rugg (Mink). He comes clean. He tells him that the Dane is dead and Bernie has to take the rap.
“Are you crazy? We’re square! You said it yourself! We got nothing on each other!” pleads Bernie.
“So what’s in it for you? There’s no angle! You can’t just shoot me, like that! Jesus Christ! Itdon’t make sense, Tommy? Look into your heart!”
He arranges the scene to make it look like Caspar and Bernie killed each other.
And with that, he’s done … the lies, the betrayal, the murder … he’s done with it … with all of them. He lets Verna tell him off and then talks with Leo at Bernie’s funeral for the final scene.
Leo asks him back, tells him things will be different, but he refuses.
“Dammit Tom, I forgive you!”
“I didn’t ask for that and I don’t want it!”
Leo leaves with Verna and Tom doesn’t say another word.
Disgusted with everything, he takes a drink. He’s chased his hat, caught it ... and it’s turned into another.