Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Hat

|Lucas Hardwick|

Theatrical poster of Coen Brothers’ film “Miller’s Crossing.”

Miller’s Crossing plays at the Heights Theater Thursday, February 8th. Visit trylon.org or heightstheater.com for tickets and more information.

(Warning: Keep these spoilers under your hat.)

I’m a bald guy, so when the temperatures drop and there’s a perpetual nip in the air, I often find the top of my head gets a little uncomfortably cool. While confined to the contentment of my own home, where the dress code is free of the hassle of coordination and everyone is at liberty to adorn themselves in aimless attire, one would discover that along with the requisite throw or light fleece covering, I regularly keep a sock hat perched atop my noggin, lest the thermostat be set above a balmy 68 degrees where our family pocketbook falls to the mercy of the overlords goosing the energy prices over at the electric company.

Certain sock hats are specifically designated for around-the-house wear. Newer, nicer hats, and those of substantial thickness are relegated to trips to the grocery store and the in-laws’ house, while older coverings of thinner constitution are set aside for the convenience of wearing inside and all day, at times being tucked into a pants pocket on the rare occasion I find myself getting a little too warm. 

It’s important to segregate sock hats into these classifications for a variety of obvious reasons, the most crucial being that the tendency for those subject to more rugged use are often given to pilling and become unfit for wearing outside the home.

My current “daily-driver” is Coke Boy, a moderately thin Coca-Cola sock hat—compliments of a giveaway from the Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta—that I use in the downstairs commons. The density of this hat is perfect for the cooler temps in the draftier rooms of our home while also being versatile enough to endure faster-paced activities like washing dishes and chasing toddlers and is not typically given to overheating. With the loss of my previous hat—a hideous maroon thing with a fleece lining and reflective stitching, that was almost too small—Coke Boy is the new kid on the block and does a yeoman’s job.

 Coca-Cola sock hat
Coke Boy.

The pile of daily-driver candidates fluctuates depending on what the Holidays bring. Usually a new haul of two or three hats from family members pushes a couple of last year’s “good hats” over into everyday use potentials. Last year’s Holiday Season yielded fewer new coverings, making the harvest for prospective daily’s a little thin for my liking, imbuing Coke Boy with a bit more purpose and tasking him with the burden of irreplaceability for the 2023-2024 winter season.

Wearing a hat around the house in the winter is a second-nature habit; while not only serving its utilitarian duty of warming my follicly impaired skull, the condition of having something on my head is a point of comfort that subconsciously transcends the immediate benefits of temperature protection. The indoor winter hat is a buffer for anxiety and stands as a symbol of routine and regularity. It serves as a constant that while assured of its whereabouts, particularly on top of my head, aids in not only physical but mental comfort permitting more clarity, focus, and accurate decision-making. A Thinking Cap, as it were, in nearly literal form.

One can imagine my state of mild panic when I recently misplaced Coke Boy. I’d briefly removed it for one reason or another, and as someone who is almost always aware of his personal effects, I was missing the very thing that bound my internal world order and aided in these moderate disruptions. There I was, set about the house in a condition of unrest, searching for—not chasing—my hat.

Brimming with plot and delightfully purple, hard-boiled dialogue, Miller’s Crossing is the story of a man who also knows the importance of his hat. The Coen Brothers’ third feature film is the tale of Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), right-hand man and clubhouse lawyer to Irish gang boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) who’s makin’ it with the sister of hired fight fixer Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Trouble is, Tom is secretly makin’ it with Verna too, and the town’s rival Italian gang, led by Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), wants Bernie dead for unfixing their fixed fights. And while Tom also doesn’t see the need to keep Bernie alive, Leo’s (and Tom’s) feelings for Verna are all that stand between Bernie and a fateful trip out to Miller’s Crossing where the only things Bernie will be fixing are the daisies he’ll be pushin’ up outta the ground.

The Coens work in the confounding absurdities of the human condition with a Mark Twainian twinkle in their eye. And though cleverness often has a shelf life that only lasts as long as its punchline, the Coens approach it more thoughtfully with a destination that pries into the elemental. They examine the bullshit and then cut right through it. It’s as if to say, it’s all bullshit yet none of it is, making their commentary on mankind existential, biblical, Shakespearean. That’s not to say other filmmakers don’t also accomplish this kind of allegory, but the Coens do it in heightened parable. 

Their films are spared any actual jokes, yet humor acts as the driving force for many of their stories. The Coen Brothers aren’t poking fun at humankind—their films are more sympathetic and relatable than that; they’re simply telling us about ourselves in a way that we can handle. At its core, the Coen brand is a non-threatening form of satire imbued with the charm and precious spirit of humanity when facing dark and troubling circumstances.

The Coen sensibility is best showcased in the opening text of their 1996 film Fargo: “This is a true story.” It’s not a true story, but it could be. It’s even familiar to stories or news reports that have populated headlines across the decades. The suggestion alone is enough to get many of us scratching our heads in question wondering where we’ve heard it before.

Miller’s Crossing is a heightened sample of the more tempered proclivities demonstrated in Fargo, and attempts—and succeeds—in besting the traditional gangster tales of classic Hollywood using the very customary tropes leavened in those films. The film takes the obtuse elements of the gangster bit and uses them to advance the narrative. This is particularly demonstrated in the movie’s dialogue where every line is that bombastic, whip-crack jibber-jabber made famous in the pulps and noirs of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Scenes often begin with someone asking, “What’s the rumpus?” And the film categorically features the best use of the word “dangle” as a verb: “Take your flunky and dangle.” You want a gangster flick? Here come the Coens with a veritable branding iron to sear our consciousness: “Here’s your gal-darned gangster flick.” Ttttsssssss! 

Gabriel Byrne as Tom stands behind Albert Finney as Leo sitting at desk
The Coens do The Godfather.

The film’s characters and their dynamics operate in the boldest versions of their archetypes. The gang bosses are big and loud. Gratuitous violence is illustrated in the thousand or so rounds Leo pumps into a home intruder, tempering the brutal murder of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. Municipalities are given to complicit acts and decisions that align them with the very forces they’re supposed to be mitigating, and they are downright delightful in their complacency. Authority figures are depicted as thoughtless buffoons driven by knee-jerk reactions. Intelligence is inverse to hierarchical rank, making right-hand guys like Tom Reagan and his foil The Dane (J. E. Freeman), and low-level thugs like Bernie Bernbaum the most informed and precise amongst their thickheaded superiors. 

Tom not only advises Boss Leo in the occupational sense, he corrects him and demonstrates self-made culture informing him the proper pronunciation of joie de vivre. Leo flat-out tells Tom that he doesn’t like to think. The Dane, sufficiently aware of his place as aide-de-camp to Johnny Caspar, is astute to his own competence amongst gang leadership and is threatened by the match he finds in Tom. Bernie, on the other hand, is completely in tune with the power he holds over all parties he’s involved with and seeks solely to exploit that power in the name of their reactive tendencies. 

So what does any of this have to do with Tom Reagan’s hat? Tom is a man troubled by his role in the hierarchy of gangdom; troubled by the pile of money he owes his bookie; troubled by his vexatious relationship with Verna. His hat is less symbolic of anything specific than his desire to have it. If it represents anything, it’s emblematic of stability amongst chaos. This is made abundantly clear when Tom details a recurring dream to Verna where a wind blows his hat off his head. Verna posits that he chases it and that it turns into something wonderful and symbolic. Tom clarifies that it simply remains a hat, then adds: “…and I didn’t chase it. Nothin’ more foolish than a man chasin’ his hat.” 

Gabriel Byrne as Tom with hat firmly on head standing in a forest.
Nice hat.

Incidentally, the film begins properly with Tom waking from the very dream he describes to Verna. Upon waking from his dream, Tom is indeed in search of his hat, and as it happens, he’s lost it to Verna after a night of gambling. Verna becomes the tie that binds, churning the motivations of the film’s key characters. Leo and Tom’s affection for her not only becomes a point of contention, but the driving force of dreaded emotion around her propels the plot in fateful directions. Verna’s possession of Tom’s hat is expository of her role and symbolic of the power she holds over him. If he’s a fool at all, he’s clearly a fool for her. And while Tom may begin the film looking his definition of a fool, he is rarely seen without his hat as the film progresses. The Coens are consistently clear to make the rest of us aware of it anytime it’s off his head, reminding us, and Tom, of his otherwise brushes with foolishness. 

Marcia Gay Harden as Verna dressed in evening wear, smoking a cigarette.
Keeper of the hat.

But there’s more to Tom’s hat and his need for it than just all that. It’s important to note that Tom never chases his hat, he searches for it. “Well, what’s the damn difference?” you ask. Because to Tom, the foolishness of chasing one’s hat is an emotionally driven act. The hat is less the symbol in this case than the heart of the man chasing it. There is desperation implied in the act of chasing a hat. Tom is anything but emotional, and while he is indeed desperate—see also: his secret love affair with the boss’s girl, his private collusion with Johnny Caspar, the money he owes Lazarre—he’s smart to not let that desperation openly rule over him lest his emotions become exploited.

Every few minutes, someone in this movie is talking about being friends and the importance of friendship, usually as a persuasive tactic for their own benefit. Bernie Bernbaum rattles on rather threateningly about the value of friendships when Tom finds him creeping in his apartment. After making a perplexing comment about an incestuous attempt from his own sister to save him from his friends, Bernie says, “I can help you with your debts if that would make us friends. My motto is: a guy can’t have too many.” Besides the suffocating abundance of “friends” in Miller’s Crossing, being friends is also subject to the emotional connections that Tom endeavors to avoid. Tom is aware of the deficiencies inherent in emotions and is careful to govern his feelings in a world where they hold so much power. 

And speaking of Bernie Bernbaum, his power becomes a turning point in the film where Tom is tasked with the duty of murdering him in cold blood for his new boss Johnny Caspar. Though Tom made it clear early in the film that he saw no benefit in keeping Bernie alive, Bernie is Verna’s brother and Leo is Tom’s friend. Here come those pesky emotions Tom is so keen to avoid. 

With Tom’s gun pointed at his head, Bernie begs Tom to spare his life. “Look into your heart,” Bernie blubbers, eventually getting the best of Tom who, after a good amount of tense deliberation—and ironically, hat firmly on his head, perhaps misguiding the emotions that run congruent—fires a couple of rounds into the dirt and tells Bernie to get out of town. Tom acquiesces to his feelings for Verna (as well as some dedication to Leo) and Bernie’s appeal for friendship. Bernie successfully exploits Tom’s emotions, which, making for a compelling story, obviously comes back to bite Tom in the ass. Tom loving Verna becomes literal Tom Foolery.

Gabriel Byrne as Tom points a gun to the back of John Turturro as Bernie Bernbaum in a forest setting.
Tom “looks into his heart.”

If not for the endearing charm implicit in the Coens’ regard for the human condition, the film’s final moments could easily be the darkest brand of cynicism. Tom is forced to kill Bernie and Verna runs away with Leo; Tom’s emotions have defied him. And though Tom is afforded the money to pay off his debts, it’s hardly by his own doing and instead circumstantial due to the decisions of many besides himself. 

In Miller’s Crossing, the Coens don’t necessarily warn us of the dangers of our own feelings, but rather examine the adorable virtue of humankind to attempt to dictate its own fate by way of those feelings. Tom’s hat doesn’t guarantee his safety any more than his own heart, but the security of its whereabouts is a testament to the lovable grace found in the comfort of routine. In the Coens’ world, emotions are a force that often dictates our actions yet subverts our expectations, and affirms that we can rely on little more than the certainty of the hats on our heads.

Edited by Finn Odum

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