by Josie Kafka
The Big Sleep is notorious for a plot hole so gaping that even author Raymond Chandler admitted he had no idea what the solution was. But we don’t watch film noirs for the plot, and we don’t read hard-boiled detective stories for the detection. Rather, these films—especially in the “neo-noir” iterations of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—address crucial intersections of masculine identity and violence. And although the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing has a tightly-knitted plot, it portrays a big, gaping hole where the hero’s heart should be.
Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne) is consigliere to Irish crime boss Leo (Albert Finney) in an unnamed city during Prohibition. Tom is the yegg who knows all the angles, but shies away from spilling any blood himself. After a falling out over a dame (what else?), Tom sells his services to the next-highest boss in town, the Italian Caspar (John Polito). Along the way he loses copious amount of money playing the ponies, connives to protect one useless guy (John Turturro) at the expense of another (Steve Buscemi), and nearly loses control of the entire situation—and himself—more than once.
Based loosely on Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key and Red Harvest, Miller’s Crossing is an object lesson in defamiliarization—not of things or places, but sympathy and character. To call Tom an anti-hero is to give his actions too much meaning. To call him a hero, or even a protagonist, is to miss the point entirely.
At the beginning of the film, Tom reminds his boss Leo that there should always be a reason for doing something—and friendship doesn’t count as a reason. By the film’s end, when asked why he went to all the trouble of setting up the pins and letting others knock them down, he responds, “I don’t know. Do you always know why you do things?”
And that’s the question: why does Tom cheat, betray, lie, make a few mistakes, and let others take the fall? For the money? That’s a definite possibility. For the dame? Less likely. Because he’s sick of being treated as a second-in-command to a man who’s more bluster and bullets than brains? Or is he just sick of the eternal state of mankind—to be always chasing after our hats, our identities, and looking foolish while doing it?
After the critical acclaim of their first two pictures, the Coen brothers stalled out writing Miller’s Crossing, and took a break to pen Barton Fink, a difficult and ultimately unanswerable film about the use of art to make the mind’s interior understandable (and therefore external). Doing so got them back on track to finish Miller’s Crossing, which is about how the external (our actions) are all we have to go on for the internal (their meaning).
Tom Regan’s inability to account for himself speaks to the moral deadness at the center of the genre: some films portray the detective-hero’s valiant fight against it; Miller’s Crossing creates a Rube Goldberg series of angles to be played in order to show that knowing all the angles doesn’t give us purpose. It just gives us something to do. Or, to be more precise, it gives flawed heroes something to do, and us (the viewers) something to watch.
And watching this film is delightful: I have nothing but affection for the genre’s patois. Gabriel Byrne looks fabulous in a fedora, and the shooting location in New Orleans is well used. Does this movie leave me with an unsettled feeling? Yes. Is that on purpose? Absolutely. Any film as subtly meta as this one, that nonetheless lets us take pleasure in the trappings of a trouble amoral tale, should leave us unsettled. Miller’s Crossing does that while letting us enjoy the ride, too.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)