|Miller's Crossing (1990) / Joel Coen and Ethan Coen|
At one level or the other, the garment of all Coen Bros. films is woven around a discussion of the sustainability of a spoken (and not documented) agreement: as such, the characters are supposed to honour an established regimen – a grand central unifying code-of-life. A Coen Bros. film, however, begins at the last straw: the characters are already paying remittances for their past follies and their past debts. When Miller’s Crossing begins, Leo and Tony have already been in legion with each other for years or H.I. is already in the penitentiary when Raising Arizona begins – the Coens are more interested in implications of a position instead of origin-stories and recollections. As such, the grand code between the characters has been set from before the film starts – what we are called onto witness is the different manners of its transgression.
In that, Miller’s Crossing is the prototypical Coen Bros. film, because it is at its most fundamental about one thing: loyalties among men. That sort of (simultaneously) schlock and hard-sell lends itself easily to the gangster-movie format, because the universe of such a film is full of individuals who make grand commitments, but never on paper (for all of The Godfather trilogy’s crime syndicate-corporate family insinuations and Goodfellas’ flaunting of a large ‘network’ of crime – no one ever signs a piece of paper). Instead, they are merely Jewish businessmen handshakes, gentlemen’s agreements, the law of the spoken word – where one must (and is expected to) stick to a commitment he made.
Invariably, however, in each gangster film, someone will violate the terms of this harmonious accord: someone will rat, someone will want to usurp control, someone will generally be a dick – but while in a lot of gangster films, such violations act as narrative-triggers or plot-devices that can then justify the murder-mayhem that will follow; a Coen Bros. film will turn it into a solemn discussion of human virtues (or the lack of it). Therefore, when Tom Regan decides to play the grand-schemer-manipulator – setting one up with two, two with three, one with three – he enters into a network of double and triple crosses – a network of transgressions, thereby setting up multiple debates at the same time. One about ethics (Johnny Casper says: ‘It is now a matter of whether he is ethical or not’, about a trusted cohort), the other about morality (Verna says to Tom: ‘You always break…’ and lastly, humanity itself (Bernie to Tom: ‘Look inside your heart’. Reply: What heart?’). It is absolutely clear by the end, obviously, that he, the most disloyal of all, is the most loyal – he merely does not honor minor accords in the face of his devotion to a grander monolith.
Eventually, it is wholly natural for the Coens to conduct, at a seething regularity such discussions – their collective identity as filmmakers being about projecting a small-town admiration for simple virtues into the big bad world of Hollywood. That the device they choose to set such a discussion up is invariably the tenacity of a male bond is interesting too – their own creative partnership, after all, functioned for the first half of their career based on the agreement that only one of them get the credit for direction.