Miller’s Crossing

millers_crossing_blue_blu-ray_5The Coen Brothers wrote today’s script. I believe this is the fifth one I’ve reviewed from the Brothers Genius. I am far enough into their catalog now, that I am beginning to wonder if I ought not just review everything they’ve written. I could put the articles together with some electronic glue and call them a book—Why Love Is Impossible in the Scripts of Joel and Ethan Coen by Joel Barish… or something even sillier. In spite of my attempt at humor, this is probably a good idea. I should probably do this. Unfortunately, I rarely do what I ought to do… as a writer. We will see.

As for Miller’s Crossing itself, I came to this review by a traveling coincidence. [Traveling is not the right gerund to modify coincidence but I loved the words side by side so much after I wrote them that I could not Kill My Darling. Perhaps if I do write that Coen Brothers book, I will call it: Traveling Coincidences. I’ll leave the audience to do the math that makes the title fit.] What I should have written was that I came to this script because I was stuck on a bus to [and from] New York City, by myself, for half a day, and I read a lot of things. Miller’s Crossing was one of these things.

If you’re thinking the fact I’ve already used up a lot of words and have yet to offer any opinion on the script means I’m shrinking from an unfortunate truth; you would be correct. As much as I like the Coen’s overall, as much as the spectrum of Coen Brother’s critics seems to think Miller’s Crossing is at, or near, the summit of their filmography, I did not like this script. Perhaps it is better as a movie than a script? That excuse may have merit as, I haven’t seen the film yet.

Weirdly, the writing in this script reminded me A LOT of the writing in Barton Fink. I don’t think the stylized dialogue works well in either script [although it does work much better in Barton]. On the same track, I didn’t notice any scene of dialogue which mirrors the brilliance of individual dialogue passages in Blood Simple, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, or [even] Inside Lleywn Davis. Perhaps this lends a traveling credence [see, it only works with coincidence] to the hypothesis first stated [as a joke] in the Llewyn review.

Are these brothers taking turns writing their scripts? Is only one of them a genius?

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) As the saying goes, there is a first time for everything.

In my four previous reviews of Brothers scripts, I was unable to fault them, at all, for their dialogue. If I want to keep my critical integrity intact, it will be hard for me to continue that trend for a fifth time. Unfortunately, there is a lot of exposition in Miller’s Crossing. Unlike other Brothers scripts, they do not distract from the information dumps in this attempt by deploying exposition disintegrating techniques that pile up in their script as subtext. The first example I want to look at [of exposition transgression] comes from pages 12-13 [of the pdf on the site forums]:

How far has she got her hooks into you?

That’s a hell of a question.

It’s a grift, Leo. If she didn’t need you to
protect her brother from Johnny Caspar, d’you
think she’d still go with you on slow carriage
rides through the park? That is the deal, isn’t
it? You keep Bernie under wraps ’till Caspar
cools down?

Jesus but you’re a prickly pear. What’s wrong
with her wanting her brother taken care of?

Not a thing. I don’t blame her. She sees the
angle–which is you–and she plays it. She’s a
grifter, just like her brother. They probably
had grifter parents and grifter grandparents and
someday they’ll each spawn little grifter kids–

Stop it, Tommy. I don’t like to hear my friends
run down. Even by other friends.

Tom shrugs.

Friendship’s got nothing to do with it.

The hell you say. You do anything to help your
friends. Just like you do anything to kick your

Wrong, Leo. You do things for a reason.

Okay, Tom, you know the angles–Christ, better
than anybody. But you’re wrong about this. You
don’t know what’s in Verna’s heart. . .

In this exchange Tom lays out the case against Verna. According to Tom, she’s suckering him into thinking she cares for him in order to get protection for her brother. While all of this is true, and necessary for us to know in order to understand the story, it is delivered by [nearly] painful to read exposition.

I will note that there is a small redemption in the fact that Leo says:

… You don’t know what’s in Verna’s heart.

This will become important later, specifically for Tom.

It is also funny that Leo says this line because he doesn’t know what’s in Verna’s heart either. The Coen brothers, being who they are, could not completely empty their script of subtext even when they tried really hard.  Leo wants to know Verna’s heart, but can’t because she won’t show it to him. Tom does know her heart, but he rejects her when she offers it to him. [Don’t think Tom’s rejection exonerates Verna either, she has a part to play as well.]

One more example, and we’ll call the point discussed. From pages 82-83:

Your other friends wouldn’t break in, huh?

Tom shakes his head.

My other friends wanna kill me, so they wouldn’t

He crosses to the chair facing Bernie’s.

. . . What’s on your mind, Bernie?

Things. . . I guess you must be kind of angry.
I’m supposed to be gone, far away. I guess it
seems sort of irresponsible, my being here. . .

Bernie leaves room for a response but Tom is only listening.

. . . And I was gonna leave. Honest I was. But
then I started thinking. If I stuck around, that
would not be good for you. And then I started
thinking that. . . that might not be bad for me.

Tom still doesn’t answer.

. . . I guess you didn’t see the play you gave
me. I mean what’m I gonna do? If I leave, I got
nothing–no money, no friends, nothing. If I
stay, I got you. Anyone finds out I’m alive–
you’re dead, so. . . I got you, Tommy.

Tom is silent.

. . . What’s the matter, you got nothin’ to crack
wise about? Bernie ain’t so funny anymore?
Bernie’s lip is quivering. His voice is softer:
. . . I guess I made kinda a fool a myself out
there. . . I was shittin’ myself, Tommy. . .
you didn’t tell anyone about that.


‘Course you know about it. . . its . . . It’s a
painful memory. And I can’t help remembering
that you put the finger on me, and you took me
out there to whack me. . . I know you didn’t. .
. I know you didn’t shoot me. . . but. . . but–

But what have I done for you lately?

Don’t smart me.

He stares hard at Tom for a moment.

. . . See, I wanna watch you squirm. I wanna see
you sweat a little. And when you smart me, it
ruins it.

Bernie gets to his feet, keeping the gun trained on Tom.

Millers_Crossing_Example. . . There’s one other thing I want. I wanna
see Johnny Caspar cold and stiff. That’s what
you’ll do for your friend Bernie. . .

He has opened the door to the flat.

. . . In the meantime I’ll stay outa sight. But
if Caspar ain’t stiff in a couple of days I start
eating in restaurants.

To be fair, this is better than the first example. I imagine this is because it’s written from the “confrontation on confrontation” style dialogue route. You can see the characters begin their joust in the first two quoted lines about breaking in versus knocking.

Overall though, this is just exposition to help the audience understand the most recent double cross in this [excessively?] byzantine script. Bernie explicitly lays out his threat against Tom, and what he wants in exchange for not carrying his threat out. Tom is increasingly left speechless as the scene progresses. There is definitely intentionality in Tom’s inability to immediately answer Bernie, as Tom is the guy who always knows what to say. However, the main function of this scene is to catch the audience up. The Brothers make halting attempts to hide this fact.

[As an aside, look how well this scene demonstrates the ideas presented in the recent article, Literary Slide Rules. The authors present a confrontation on confrontation scene in which punches are thrown by both sides until one verbal pugilist emerges as victor by unanimous decision.

Tom lands the first blow when he chastises Bernie for knocking before breaking in.

Bernie lands the second with his “that might not be bad for me”.

Bernie follows up with more points for his “Anyone finds out I’m alive, you’re dead…”.

Tom connects with his “But what have I done for you lately?” But there is little force in the accusation.

Bernie staggers Tom when he orders Tom to kill Caspar.

Bernie then wins outright when he says “I’ll be eating in restaurants”.

Four points to two, and no one reads this scene without realizing that Bernie wiped the verbal floor with Tom. I also love that there is such regularity in the way the points are scored. It is almost as if the Brothers have subconsciously observed the form of TomBernieBernie, TomBernieBernie, or TBB, TBB. Can there be this much precision latent in writing? (1)]

Overall, I don’t think the Coen’s successfully handled the exposition in this script:

4 out of 10 points.

Part B) Having read so many scripts from the Coen Brothers, and having seen what they can do with subtext, I would have been surprised if the dialogue had been deficient in this area—in spite of the script’s stylized presentation.

I believe there are two subtextual currents coursing through Miller’s Crossing. The first has to do with Tom’s ability to know the true selves of other people. We’ll trace this current by first noting the instances where someone calls Tom out [good or bad] for being a “smart guy”.

Too bad for you, smart guy. [pg. 35]


Don’t I know it. Last night, I know The Dane
was disappointed the bulls showed up before
Frankie and Tic-Tac could really pin your ears
back, but I said, Relax, Eddie, I got a
feeling about this kid. Take the long view. The
kid and Leo are gonna go bust-o. If the kid ain’t
ready yet, well, he soon will be. Matter of
time. I said, the kid’s too smart for Leo.
That’s what I said. Like a psychic. Ask
The Dane if I didn’t. Like a goddamn psychic.
G’ahead. Ask him.

Tom turns to The Dane.

You vouch for this psychic business?

That’s right, smart guy. [pg. 58]


You got references? You been to college, kid?
We only take yeggs what’s been to college. Ain’t
that right, Dane?

The Dane’s scowl is set in cement.

. . . I’m jokin’, of course. We all know you can
be useful to us, a smart kid such as yaself, the
man who walks behind the man and whispers in his
ear. I guess you could be useful, in spades. [pg. 59]


This guy’s wrong. This guy’s all wrong. Mink is
clean and this clown is a smart guy. [pg. 61]


Message from Leo. Leo says, if you’re smart
you’ll sit this one out–not that he cares one
way or the other. Leo says if you’re on the
wrong side you take your chances, like anyone
else. Leo says he gives no special favors.
That’s all. [pg. 66]


You’re so goddamn smart. Except you ain’t. I
get you, smart guy, I know what you are.
Straight as a corkscrew… [pg. 88]


….Everyone’s so goddamn smart. Well, we’ll
go to Miller’s Crossing. And we’ll see who’s
smart. [pg. 89, italics mine as these words may end up being the key to the script]


As he levels the gun at Tom:

Think about this, smart guy. [pg. 90]


That ain’t all we know, smart guy.

I can see that. Well. It was a smart play, all
around. I guess you know I’m grateful. [pg. 122]


I go through the trouble of listing all the times Tom is directly referenced as a “smart guy” because I want you to believe the Coen Brothers knew exactly what they were doing when they repeated the trope so often. They are making a point. Intelligence in this script [or the quality Tom has which everyone needs, and then hates him for having], is synonymous with the ability to manipulate people in to doing what he wants them to do. In the land of Miller’s Crossing, calling someone a “smart guy” does not mean the same thing it does in our world. In Tom’s universe, intelligence is identical to manipulation.

Equally as prominent in this script is the SECOND way in which Tom gets referenced as a “smart guy”. The review would bloom to absurd lengths if I cite every instance, so I’ll just choose my favorite example. From page 82:

But what have I done for you lately?

Don’t smart me.

He stares hard at Tom for a moment.

. . . See, I wanna watch you squirm. I wanna see
you sweat a little. And when you smart me, it
ruins it.

Most all of the characters in this script, at some point, accuse Tom of having “smarted” them. In translation, this means that he has insulted them in some way. There is, in every instance when this charge is leveled at Tom, implicit admission from the character making the accusation, that he or she is not up to the task of competing with Tom in an insult duel. Tom wins all these contests by default because no one is willing to challenge him in this arena. In the land of Miller’s Crossing, the smartest guy in the room is the one who can always land the best verbal blow.

So, why did the Coen Brothers use this word so often, almost to the point where it becomes annoying to read? My guess is that they were having fun with the audience. The Coen’s are just about the only writers I know who actively indulge a penchant for metafictional haberdashery in their work. They are literally playing with language. They are riffing on the “gangster terminology” which inhabits the films and books which are this script’s inspiration. They are honoring, at the same time they are poking fun.

It is, almost, weird how much the act of writing Miller’s Crossing mirrors the character traits of the protagonist who leads Miller’s Crossing. One could almost accuse them of being geniuses again.

Of course, all of the preceding has been in reference to the [etymologically vague] term WiseGuy. This word has two meanings in ordinary language usage:

1. A member of the mafia.
2. a benign jokester

just like “smart guy” has two meanings in ordinary Miller’s Crossing usage. The metafictional clincher is that Tom is not really a member of either “mafia” in his story, and his jokes are never benign.

The Coen’s, with their spirited use of word play, are staking their claim on a particular genre of story while simultaneously maintaining their unique attempt at reinvention of this genre. Once again, their work is impressive to a degree which suggests supernatural influence.

I would like to hold the second subtextual current back until our discussion of theme. As we would expect from Brothers with story structuring talent to spare, this [as yet undisclosed current] eventually merges gracefully with the first current. It is all done in support of the script’s theme. For now:

10 out of 10 points.

Part C) This is likely to be the shortest answer I will ever give about the character individuation in a Coen Brothers script.

Yes, the characters are all properly individuated but, good lord did I hate reading their lines. The imitation of, and borrowing from, older works in the genre OFFENDED my ear. It made the script lifeless. The stylization, as Bernie says about Tom’s “smartness” in the lines quoted above:

…ruins it.

2 out of 10 points.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

If I lay aside the fact that I can’t stand how the dialogue is written in these first ten pages, I have to admit the Coen Brothers set their story up quite effectively. We meet all of the principals with the exceptions of Bernie and Mink [although, these two are prominently mentioned in the dialogue]. The conditions of the coming gang war are crisply drawn. Caspar thinks Bernie is costing him money by leaking knowledge of which fights Caspar is fixing. Caspar wants Leo’s blessing to kill Bernie for his indiscretion. Leo withholds this blessing for personal reasons. Tom calls Leo out on his unprofessional response to the Caspar crisis. We also learn of Tom’s own personal issues with gambling debts. And lastly, we see Verna and Tom together as probable lovers.

My biggest complaint with this setup is that the constraints the Coens forced on themselves with the dialogue prevented them from offsetting this expository opening with their usual subtext. Once again, the Coens pay in points for their choice to use obsolete phraseology:

14 out of 20 points.

Part Two of this review can be found here.


1. In case this thought tree ends up bearing idea fruit, I have decided to officially name this type of “confrontation on confrontation” pattern. From now on, it will be known as the first Sextave in the Coenarchan Confrontation. (2)

2. Footnote 1 is a joke. The point which led to footnote 1 is not.


2 responses to “Miller’s Crossing

  1. Oh no! First time I will roundly disagree with you, although I’m not sure how to argue it if you hated the way the dialogue sounded…Miller’s Crossing is one of my all-timers, and has always been on my Mount Rushmore when it comes to dialogue. I carried my copy of the script book around like a bible for a year or so, and got endless pleasure from opening to random pages and just reading a scene or three.

    I will say this: I saw the movie first — and I don’t think it’s possible to hate on the way things sound in this film once you’ve actually heard the actors (successfully, gracefully, perfectly) deliver all the lines. On screen, imo, the individuations play out as some of the best EVER in any movie. Caspar, The Dane, Bernie, Leo, Tom…and all the wonderful secondary characters…they have become archetypes in mind. God, the opening scene with Caspar and the clinking of ice in the glass, “I’m talkin’ bout ethics”, the way it sounds, the way it LOOKS…Miller’s Crossing is perfect!

    • No worries. My opinion is definitely the minority on this one. Most critics rate this as one of the best in the Coen Brothers canon.

      I do think seeing it might make it better. I selected the second picture in this article solely because of how much I liked the shot. I imagine the rest of the film looks as good as this shot.

      Also, the script is exceptionally well structured. There is no taking that away from them.

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