Miller’s Crossing (2)

millers-crossing-3Today we will continue our discussion from last week about the Coen Brothers script, Miller’s Crossing. If you missed part one of the review, it can be found here.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story? (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)

Part A) It would be difficult to argue that this script doesn’t have enough reveals. In fact there are probably enough crosses and double crosses to fill two scripts. The Coen Brothers do an excellent job [as they do in almost every script of theirs I’ve read] (3) of taking their protagonist to the brink of losing everything before allowing her to win anything at all—if they allow her to win anything at all. I know I tend to recommend a lot of things about their writing style, but this is something they do that is REALLY worth studying. They corner their protagonist on a vanishingly small piece of story topography and then have her devise more and more reckless schemes for how to get out of her corner.

Let’s list all the things that go wrong for Tom before anything starts to go right:

1. He loses money, his hat, and gets punched in the face during a card game with Mink and Verna. He leaves the bar, but not before making a 500 hundred dollar bet on a horse named Thunderclap. Bartender Fat Tony warns him that he can’t afford to go deeper in the hole with Lazarre, but Tom makes the bet anyway.

2. A few pages later Tom learns, from a newspaper headline, that Thunderclap was injured in a “racing mishap”.

3. Tom bets another hundred on a horse named Tailor Made.

4. After his first conversation with Caspar and The Dane, Tom gets beat up by Frankie and Tic-Tac. Ten seconds after they knock Tom unconscious the police arrive.

5. Tom asks Leo to “trust him” on Verna. Leo declines. Tom tells Leo the truth about him and Verna. Leo beats Tom up and disowns him.

6. Tom gives up Bernie’s whereabouts to Caspar. Frankie, Tic-Tac, and Tom take Bernie to Miller’s Crossing to kill him. When they get there, Tic-Tac tells Tom he’s got to kill Bernie, or Caspar won’t trust him.

7. Tom can’t do it. He shoots over Bernie’s head and then tells him to leave town.

8. Bernie breaks into Tom’s place, and demands Tom kill Caspar or else Bernie will begin “eating in restaurants”.

9. Tom climbs out his bedroom window and tries to ambush Bernie as he’s leaving the building. Bernie ambushes Tom instead. Bernie gets away clean; Tom gets more bruises.

10. The Dane hears Frankie and Tic-Tac never actually saw Tom kill Bernie. They just heard the gun shots. The Dane decides to take Tom back to Miller’s Crossing to see if Bernie’s body is there.

This brings us to page 89 of a 123 page script. Up until this point in the script Tom’s web of lies [and bad habits] have put him into increasingly dangerous situations. Tom is playing the hell out of a very bad hand, but his skill at manipulation is not being aided by the missing, magical, ingredient he needs… some luck.

[The Coen Brothers seem to think that An Idea for a Movie is the same thing as imagining what would happen to a protagonist if every possible scenario that befell her ended with the worst possible result for her. You might almost convict them of equating drama with seeing how far resourcefulness stretches before it breaks. A proper account of their work would no doubt spend a great deal of time drawing out the reasons some of their protagonists actually succeed in outlasting their run of bad luck. Some of them do succeed… right?]

It is not until page 89 that Tom catches his first break. When The Dane gets him to Miller’s Crossing, they find the unrecognizable body of a man shot twice in the face. The Dane ASSUMES it’s Bernie, granting Tom a temporary reprieve.

As if to prove they’ve read my theory about plot and character arc as a sum of wins and losses, the Brothers are not yet done torturing Tom. From page 103:

The two men pick Tom off the floor and start to work him
over. He doesn’t resist.

The first man watches dispassionately.

. . . Third race tonight. By the finish, Tailor
Maid had a view of the field.

He lights himself a cigarette.

. . . You oughta lay off the ponies, Tom.
The two men work in silence for a while. Tom too is

. . . Okay.

The two men back away from Tom, breathing heavily. He
slides down the wall to the floor.

. . . Lazarre said he’s sorry about this. It’s
just getting out of hand.

Tom speaks thickly, his head propped against the baseboard:

. . . Yeah.

He likes you, Tom. He said we didn’t have to
break anything.

Yeah. Okay. . . Tell him no hard feelings.

Christ, Tom, he knows that.

From page 103 onward things begin to go more smoothly for Tom. His luck, which first turned [appropriately] at Miller’s Crossing, continues to hold until The Dane, Caspar, and Bernie are all dead—by way of his manipulative skill. He manages to pay off his debt to Lazarre [with money stolen from Caspar’s corpse]. His old friend Leo is so happy with the result of all Tom’s manipulation, he wants Tom to come back to work for him. Of course that offer hinges on Tom being able to ignore the fact that Leo and Verna are getting married. Naturally, Tom can’t ignore that fact. By Fade Out, it seems that Tom’s luck has run out again.

Maybe [we will discuss this more in a minute] the only thing Tom really wanted was the one thing his manipulation couldn’t bring him—love. [Damn, this is beginning to sound very familiar.]

In short, there are more than enough reveals to propel this script to its conclusion. A more austere critic than me might even be tempted to say there are too many reveals in this script. I am not that austere. However, I will note that none of the reveals which round this script out compares to the reveal at Miller’s Crossing. The first time you read [or see] this, you approach the clearing at Miller’s Crossing with palpable dread. You just know there won’t be a body. When there is, it is shocking. The unraveling of the double crosses which Tom uses to “win” is… but a paltry thing beside the clearing reveal. (4)

9 out of 10 points.

Part B) I believe I let the engine slip in the preceding part of this question. The Coen Brothers have now become notorious [to me] for their insistence on writing about love from a “second cousin once removed” point of view. In Fargo, the code word for love was cooperation. In Miller’s Crossing the code word is knowledge. To know someone in this world is to be able to get them to willingly do the things you want them to do. In our world, we willingly do the things others want us to do when we love them.

It seems to me that a dual threat “smartguy” is the perfect protagonist to insert into a script about knowledge… of other minds.

5 out of 5 points.

Part C) I believe the reveal at Miller’s Crossing when Tom and The Dane find a body where no body should be is the pinch point of this story. Although it will later turn out that [once again] the Coens achieve thematic perfection by having this as their pinch point. I don’t believe, structurally, this was best. No moment in the script after this moment carries the weight of this moment. This reveal, I think, should have been much closer to the end of the script, or the Coens should have searched themselves for an even bigger reveal.

3 out of 5 points.

Part D) Before we get to a thematic statement, we must go back and pick up the other strand of subtext that we left unnamed in question 1. At the time, I wrote out a good argument in support of the idea that a lot of the dialogue in Miller’s Crossing is meant to convey the idea that Tom “knows” people better than anyone else in his world. He is able to use this knowledge against his enemies [and for his friends] in order to get people to do the things he wants them to do. This was evident in the way the Coens went to such lengths to refer to Tom as a smartguy.

The other subtextual current in this script centers on Tom’s repeated insistence that:

Nobody knows anybody. Not that well.

A line which he first delivers to Verna on page 41, before giving it again WORD FOR WORD on page 99 to Caspar. Both times the response is delivered to cast doubt on whether important characters have been up to bad things. In Verna’s case she asks Tom if he doesn’t know her well enough to know she wouldn’t murder someone. In Caspar’s case, he is validating his belief in The Dane by saying he knows him well enough to know The Dane wouldn’t be financially cheating him. It is very important to note that it doesn’t matter what the truth value of the statements supported by the call to personal knowledge are, it only matters that Tom says YOU CAN NOT know anyone well enough to know what actions they will [or have] take[n] unless you were there to witness it yourself. Tom has staked his tent in a world where the only person you can be certain justifies trust is… you.

Even that may be too much. The injunction to trust oneself works if [and only if] Tom is a good substitute for the audience. I, however, don’t think Tom is a universal signifier. He’s a little like Kant’s invention at the beginning of his groundwork which ends up implying that all those pages which follow the introduction don’t really apply to human beings. Tom, like Kant’s wholly rational agent, approximates human beings, but he is not one. Almost as often as Tom is referenced as a “smartguy”, he is also excoriated for “not having a heart”. The first example is from page 42:

Admit you don’t like me seeing Leo because you’re
jealous. Admit it isn’t all cool calculation
with you–that you’ve got a heart–even if it’s
small and feeble and you can’t remember the last
time you used it.

The next example comes from page 64. It’s delivered by Bernie:

He turns and sinks to his knees, wailing, his hands clasped
in front of him, staring up at Tom.

. . . You can’t kill me. I’m praying to you!
look in your heart! I’m praying to you! Look in
your heart!

Tom stares down at Bernie, his face drawn and pale.

. . . I’m praying to you! Look in your heart!
Slowly Tom raises the gun and levels it at Bernie’s head.
. . . Look in your heart! Look in your—

And then from 110:

mill 4VERNA
You expect me to believe you?

. . . No.

That’s you all over, Tom. A lie and no heart.

On 117 we get the antidote to Tom’s “heart” filled mistake with Bernie on 64:

So what’s in it for you?! There’s no angle! You
can’t just shoot me, like that!

He sinks to his knees, his voice rising.

. . . Jesus Christ! It don’t make sense! Tommy!
Look in your heart!

What heart.

And finally, from page 117:

Jesus, Tom! You don’t just talk to people for
the play it gives you or doesn’t give you! I
suffered, you no-heart son of a bitch!

Before I sum this heart-centric subtext up into a pithy statement, I’d like to also cite the times Verna uses the word heart in her descriptions of Leo. I believe the contrast will be enlightening.

[We’ll start this section with one quote from Leo ABOUT Leo. From page 6:

And they’ll be right, but that ain’t the point.
Call me a big-hearted slob, but I’m gonna square
it for ya.]

Verna begins her heart shaped endorsements of Leo on page 25:

Leo’s got the right idea. I like him, he’s
honest and he’s got a heart.

An opinion which she reiterates on page 56:

You never know. He’s got a big heart.

As an endcap, we should also restate what Leo says to Tom ABOUT Verna on page 13:

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. . .

If you look back through these lines I believe every one of them can be turned into a subtextual dart aimed squarely at the dartboard of human trust. To have a heart, in Miller’s Crossing, does not mean the same thing that it does in our world where such a person would also be described as warm, caring, and generally genial. In Miller’s Crossing having a heart is equal to trusting someone other than yourself. It is not for nothing that the one time Tom has a heart [when he doesn’t kill Bernie], it almost costs him his life.

From this we can now make a first pass at the theme of Miller’s Crossing:

Humans are not worth trusting.

This idea is central to this story, but I don’t believe it is quite complete. As we have seen previously with “smartguy” and “heart”, the idea of trust is really a code word for the much larger concept which underlies this script. I believe the Coen Brothers are intending us to view trust as the fictional doppelganger of the most prized of our human inventions—love. Once again [and I promise I did not start out to prove this] the Coens are telling us:

Love is impossible.

If you remember back to Part C, when we discussed the pinch point, I think you can now see why I designate this script as thematically perfect. Remember what The Dane said in the car with Tom:

. . . Everyone’s so goddamn smart. Well, we’ll
go to Miller’s Crossing. And we’ll see who’s

In point of fact, this was the most insightful thing The Dane says in the whole script. At Miller’s Crossing, Tom learned that it wasn’t “smart” to ever use your “heart”.

***I am beginning to think, almost more seriously than jokingly, that The Coen Brothers are highly misanthropic people.

10 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) The Coens admit that a lot of the plot of this story is owed to Hammett. As I discussed in the dialogue section of this review, I think this lends the script an anachronistic feel. I was not a fan of this feeling in the first part of this review, and I am still not a fan now.

3 out of 5 points.

Part B) In spite of that, I again find myself humbled by the thematic and subtextual completeness of Miller’s Crossing. Even though I went as far as saying “I hated” the dialogue, I can’t deny they deliver the most intelligent stories of anyone currently writing in this business. Even when I DON’T LIKE the finished product, they still leave me awed by their ability:

5 out of 5 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? (10 points)

As with every other script of theirs I’ve reviewed, I find myself struggling with this question. I never feel this question is inappropriate EXCEPT when I review a Coen Brothers script. It can’t really be fair for me to fault them because I’m a humanist and they are a couple of practiced misanthropes.

Of course, what is at stake in my question is what you think is the point of Art. Even though I don’t think it’s fair to fault them, I still think I am right and they are wrong. However, I have not taken the time to offer anything other than sketches in defense of Artistic Humanism. It would, I think, be unfair to rate them on my intuitions.

Until I formalize my reasons for thinking question 5 is, from the standpoint of what humans mean by making Art, a valid question, I will continue to split half the difference with regard to their score. I’m even willing to refrain from editing these reviews based on those formalized reasons whenever I take the time to come up with them. The Coens have forced me to be a more honest critic.

I wonder if this isn’t even the First Premise in the argument I will someday make against them.

8 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 73


4.  I like “clearing reveal” even more than the “traveling coincidences” from the first part.


8 responses to “Miller’s Crossing (2)

  1. The thing about this movie that moves me is the way Tom had Leo’s back the whole time, no matter how small of a story island he was tap-dancing on, and even when Leo will not act in ways that are for his own good.

    In that spirit, I think the theme of the movie is, “If love is impossible, be loyal.” Granted my own personal code of ethics places loyalty somewhere close to the top of the pyramid so I may be projecting onto the material a bit.

    • I agree with what you’ve placed after the comma in your statement of theme. Its clear the Coens intend us to believe Toms loyalty is sincere.

  2. I think Tom is just as sincere in his loyalty to
    Verna too. He fails to connect in friendship and in romantic love.

  3. There is something about their misanthropic treatment of their secondary characters that strikes me as more vicious than what they do to their main characters.

    I mean this in the sense that you are meaning it when you accuse them of posing. It’s all part of the joke.

    Here’s what I really wonder: How many of us are they inviting to the table to laugh with them?

  4. I have been thinking about this for a while now. It raises a number of interesting issues. My tendency is to dismiss the Coens with jokes but they are talented and influential filmmakers. I know you and Joel D admire their work, and I have enjoyed many of their films and scripts.

    The scripts read a little more mean-spirited and cold than the films play. The key thing here is that when you bring a ton of craft and technique to your examination of a subject, you can affect disinterest in or disdain for that subject all you want, like a kid acting cool. But in a way you have already declared your love for that subject. So the striking visuals, by some of the top cinematographers in the business, the awards-level performances, the precision editing, and the many beautiful scores by Carter Burwell go a long way toward ameliorating what may seem a little sneering or dismissive or uncharitable on the page.

    This is really what I mean when I say they are poseurs, and to the extent that they are, they are certainly world-class poseurs. The best of their work rises above the prurient fascination with the subject matter that is an unfortunate hallmark of some independent film. I think they secretly love their characters and just feel uncomfortable about openly expressing that, like a couple of middle-aged ‘sotans.

    • I like the fact that I’ve decided to review all of their scripts. I want to find out what is causing that thing that makes you call them poseurs, and makes me call them misanthropes. I feel like by reading everything, I may have the perspective required to answer the question for myself.

      It really bothers me. Are they sincere, or is the audience part of the joke too? I lean toward your interpretation “they secretly love their characters”, but I want to know for sure.

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