I have a confession to make.
I don’t know that I’ve ever “liked” a Coen Brothers movie on the first viewing.
Possibly Raising Arizona—but I was probably only half paying attention to that one, as an eight or nine-year-old, on VHS. I doubt my parents would have taken me to see it in a theater.
Every single other film of theirs I’ve initially found somehow elusive, obscurely disappointing—and this includes their recent work, decades past the point when I became a fan, when I clearly should have known better.
I think Inside Llewyn Davis is the last Coen Brothers film I saw as a new release, in a theater. And even that, I remember thinking, “So a bunch of things happen to this guy, so what?” You kind of wind up where you started, with a question about how any of it fits together. It felt too simple, like almost lazy filmmakers clearly past their prime.
And yet. Every single time, something keeps… chewing on me, as if there’s something unresolved. In Inside Llewyn Davis, it was the cat—why is there a cat? What’s the point of the cat, why is there a cat in this movie? Sure, it escapes and he gets locked out of the apartment at the beginning. But there are lots of ways to get locked out of an apartment. And at the end it just… comes back? It seems arbitrary, unnecessary… but it was a choice.
Eventually I watched the movie again, which only led to more unresolved questions—the movie starts at a music club at night, and follows with Llewyn waking up in the morning—but is it the next morning, or is it the previous morning? Are we in the past or the present? Are we Inside Llewyn Davis?
A student, whose name I forget, impressed the hell out of me in a paper by mentioning that cats, in Egyptian mythology, are able to cross over into the land of the dead—and Llewyn is chasing this cat. And he’s a musician. Is the whole thing a retelling of the Orpheus myth, who ventures into the underworld to try to bring back his lover? Is Llewyn venturing into the underworld to try to find the other half of his music duo, who killed himself? And what does that even mean, in the context of creativity and success and potential fame?
Every single one of their films, I think—they are all equally unresolvable to me, each for its own reasons. It’s so tempting to analyze their films, it’s like catnip. They are full of symbolism, rich in references, historically dense, charged with gender and family power dynamics. They invite all of this analysis and beautifully resist it at the same time.
This may seem like a grandiose claim, but in my opinion, the Coen Brothers are THE great American religious filmmakers, on par with Bergman for Sweden, Bresson for France, or Tarkovsky for Russia.
They don’t shy away from any of this religious symbolism, over the course of their career—but neither do they embrace it. Like any great religious text, each of their films can be unpacked and unpacked, analyzed at a dozen different levels—and at the end their mysteries remain intact, somehow. Because, I guess, it’s art.
So, similarly: Miller’s Crossing.
Everybody who has done ten minutes of research knows that the Coen Brothers are huge fans of Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain—and that Miller’s Crossing in particular is inspired by Hammett’s “Red Harvest” and “The Glass Key.”
And, the hats—hats are a big deal, the title screen of the movie is a hat in the woods, there’s a dream about a hat—hats are symbolic of men and their roles, their armor, their masculinity. Okay great.
But I noticed something entirely different and new to me as I was watching the movie yet again, for maybe the fifth or sixth time.
The fulcrum of the whole movie, plotwise, is a character named Bernie Bernbaum, played by John Tuturro in his first role for the Coen Brothers, a gay Jew who spends the entire movie basically hiding from various people who are trying to kill him for being a “chiseler”—someone who trades on inside information about fixed boxing matches, whispering in people’s ears, sharing secrets without permission.
The whole movie is about him—he’s mentioned in almost every scene, and the plot turns on people in their various relationships with him. But strangely, Bernie is only in four scenes in the entire movie. And, crucially, we never see anyone else interact with him. There’s a short comedic scene with some minor characters dragging him into and out of the car that takes him to the woods, but that’s it. In a movie that’s almost entirely talking, and immensely complex, hard to track in terms of the characters and their relationships, this key character only ever interacts substantively on-screen with Tom. He’s “in relationship” with half a dozen other characters—his lover, his sister, the guys he’s conspiring with—but our experience of him is limited to these four intense, one-on-one exchanges with Tom.
There are plenty of reasons for this, maybe. Bernie spends most of the movie in hiding, and we spend most of the movie in a room with Tom—there’s hardly a scene without him in it.
But here’s the detail that I can’t seem to resolve: In the scene where we meet Bernie for the first time, Tom comes into the room to answer the phone. Sits down in a chair by the window. Has a conversation on the phone. Hangs up. Then, talks to Bernie—who, it turns out, is in the chair directly facing him.
In the conversation, it seems that Bernie has “let himself in”—he’s slouched way down in the chair, so it’s plausible that he was there the whole time and we didn’t see him. Watching it the first time, it would be easy to make that assumption. But watching it again, knowing that he’s about to be revealed there: Bernie is not in the chair when Tom comes into the room. The shot where Tom sits down is a subtle camera move—maybe we wouldn’t see his head poking up over the top of the chair, but we would definitely see his knees, or his feet, based on the angle.
No way is Bernie in that chair when Tom comes into the room.
Here’s the thing. Like with the cat, this is a very specific choice. There are a million ways to make it clear, one way or the other, whether Bernie is sitting there. A bigger chair, a different camera angle, a different posture for Bernie, even a different order of shots.
Tom’s eyes remain steady throughout the phone call. It would be super easy to direct him to “notice” Bernie at any point in the conversation—a flicker of recognition, a change in his tone of voice, a blink, even. We could know that he’s there before Tom—Tom could know that he’s there before us. This subtle distinction—that we would only wonder upon repeat viewings whether or not he magically appeared in the chair—is masterful, intentional filmmaking.
So what are the implications of this? If Bernie is not in the chair, then appears in the chair, and only ever interacts with Tom (except the short comedic interlude with the thugs)—what’s going on here?
The conversation on the phone is about Tom’s debt to a character we never meet named “Lazarre”—and in the first exchange with Bernie, Bernie says: “I can help you with your debts if that would make us friends.” What kind of character appears, as though in a puff of smoke, and offers something like this? A deal, a bargain, a pact?
As I said before, watching and rewatching Coen Brothers films, I’m continually struck by how religious they are in nature—preoccupied, from the very beginning, with sin. Going back to the initial murder at the center of Blood Simple, their first film—what is a greater sin than burying someone alive? What could possibly drive a man to make that decision? I read a bunch of Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain novels while preparing to write this, and similarly there, I was struck by the primordial grappling, in most or all of those stories, with what could be categorized as sin—base, carnal desires, sex and violence.
Throughout the Coen Brothers’ history, the Devil shows up again and again, in many guises—not literally of course, that would be far too obvious for them, but once you start looking for him, he’s hard to miss. In Blood Simple, one of the four principal characters, Detective Vissers, instigates all of the violence in the movie, and reveals the affair—he reveals the id, the sex and violence intertwined. And interestingly, there too, he never meets either of the two leads (except in the final scene, literally through the wall—Abby never sees him). He’s always working in the shadows.
What is the role of the devil in a human drama? To tempt, to reveal the base animal desire behind the civilized façade. To offer a choice.
“I can help you with your debts if that would make us friends” seems to me exactly what an emissary of the devil would say—whether it’s Mephistopheles approaching Faust on behalf of Lucifer, or Bernie Bernbaum appearing in Tom’s room, offering to solve his problems with Lazarre.
A recurring theme throughout Miller’s Crossing is someone offering Tom a choice, and him responding, “I’ll think about it.” The whole movie, in a sense, is this very meditation—on Character, Ethics, and Friendship—just like mob boss Caspar says in the opening monologue of the film. But it’s not uncomplicated. If it was a simple choice between Good and Evil, being loyal to your friends versus being a murderer and an adulterer, then it wouldn’t be art, it wouldn’t keep vibrating as a living work about the actual complexities of life.
Both Leo and Verna want Bernie protected—but Tom goes against both of their wishes because he can see what it will cost Leo. He makes his choice—and has to make it again, up close and personal in the woods, when he discovers that he’s been tasked with killing Bernie himself. Bernie pleads with him to look within his heart, he says “I’m praying to you…” he tries everything he can think of to preserve his life, begging on his knees.
Tom’s choice seems to be the humane one, the right or moral or good choice. But it quickly comes back to bite him. As to character—Bernie is a liar. Everything he’s said proves to be false—that he’s never crossed a friend, for starters.
Tom lives in a world of murderers, where violence is casual and businesslike—but according to Leo and Caspar, an ethical world—where people are at least honest about it. Keeping his word would involve killing Bernie “like an animal”—but by letting him live, Tom has doomed himself to a world of double-crosses, a fallen world, where “nobody knows anybody” and where you can’t trust your heart. This sin—the sin of trying to protect Bernie, letting him stay in the Garden of Eden where predators rule – starts with Verna, with her lobbying on behalf of her brother. She’s a “fallen woman,” using sex to get what she wants, and in fact, sex in this movie is exclusively associated with the liars—Eddie Dayne, Mink, and Bernie, who are involved in some kind of gay relationship drama together, and Verna—who Bernie reports disconcertingly, “even tried to teach me a thing or two.” All of the sexual energy, all of the lies and double crossing in the film, originate from this queer and/or Jewish axis.
Does that make the movie, or me, or both, antisemitic and homophobic? I don’t think so. The Coen Brothers are open about their Jewishness and their fascination with Judaism. Bernie’s identity in this film, to me, is about contrast and complication. Tom’s world, the world of Irish and Italian mobsters and corrupt police officers and politicians, is presented as simple, socially Darwinian, ethical within the bounds of its own vicious rules.
Bernie and Verna are alone in this world, culturally—they don’t have a community of any kind that we can see, they only have each other. They are refugees, outsiders, notably different, and preoccupied with their own survival. They are of the Old Testament, in a way, thrust into a New Testament world, and forced to use whatever advantages they can find. This highlights the perversity of the Catholicism of the warring gangs, planting the seeds that eventually lead Tom to become a refugee himself, willing to leave behind the possibility of Leo’s protection.
Bringing religion into this depression-era film noir story at all strikes me as a decision to add layers to the genre—having characters constantly referring to one another by ethnically derogatory and period-accurate slang locates it in history and in the larger world, considering the successive waves of immigrants arriving in America throughout the first half of the 20th Century.
In short, I don’t imagine the Coen Brothers thinking of Bernie as evil, so much as a character with a point of view that necessarily introduces complexity, and thus, doubt, into the consciousness of protagonist Tom. Only in a world where Good and Evil are clear and straightforward could Bernie and his sister be easily categorized as Evil—and the Coen Brothers are uninterested in making movies about that type of clear and straightforward world.
In the moral universe of the two dominant warring mobs, murder is the right and good choice—the loyal choice. But once he steps outside of this comfortable dualism, Tom is broken—he can’t go back. He’s left alone, peeking out mournfully from under his hat at the end, unwilling to go back to work for Leo, to go back to the old order.
In the final exchange between Tom and Leo, Leo forgives him—for everything, for sleeping with Verna, for going over to Caspar’s side. He is granted a very Catholic form of absolution, authoritative and comprehensive, by fatherly Leo (the Lion) who even has crowns on his Irish slippers. Absolution is offered—which is maybe another kind of existential deal, mirroring Bernie’s offer.
But Tom says no. “I didn’t ask for that and I don’t want it.”
While there are other great religious filmmakers—Scorsese immediately comes to mind—I think the Coen Brothers do something much more challenging in many of their films. They set a character in motion, make them grapple with moral choices and ethical questions, and ultimately… withhold judgment.
Which may be why I never like their movies the first time—ambiguity can be frustrating, unpleasant. Sometimes we want to be told what to think, who’s good and who’s evil, who wins and who loses, who deserves our admiration, and who our enmity. But these Coen Brothers films rarely provide that simple comfort—so I just have to keep thinking about them, and watching them, again and again.
Edited by Finn Odum