The Coen Brothers have a habit of using an innocuous object as a catalyst for many of their convoluted plots. This is slightly different from Hitchcock’s favored “MacGuffin,” the thing everybody in the story wants though nobody really cares what it is. Think of the stolen car in Fargo, the Dude’s rug in The Big Lebowski, or the cat from Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coen Brothers’ objects are only important to maybe one character, but the cascade of problems that result from their misuse or mistreatment create so many unintended consequences that the object itself is often forgotten. In Miller’s Crossing, this object is a hat belonging to Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), a gangster working for Irish mob boss Leo (Albert Finney). Reagan misplaces the hat early on, a seemingly minor occurrence that nevertheless starts a snowball effect, ending with the entire city thrust into an all-out gang war. Tom is forced to make a series of bloody moral choices that eventually entangle everyone around him, including his mistress (Marcia Gay Harden), her brother (John Turturro), the city cops and politicians, and most of the criminal underworld.
This film is, at its heart, a morality play, one of the earliest examples of the Coens using genre to examine the ethical core of their characters.
Between all the double-crosses, romantic and professional betrayals, the lies and the blackmailing, the film’s plot becomes so intricate that the Coens have said they had to stop working on the script and write Barton Fink instead. But what happens in Miller’s Crossing is far less interesting than how it affects Tom, who struggles to keep himself one step ahead of everyone else, and to stay alive. This film is, at its heart, a morality play, one of the earliest examples of the Coens using genre to examine the ethical core of their characters. That old line against the Coens that ‘they hate their characters’ is generally over-emphasized, but in Miller’s Crossing at least they do end up with a nihilistic, cold-blooded bastard of a protagonist. Unable to control the macho bluster swirling around him or the same impulses within himself, Tom increasingly ends up alienated from and hated by everyone. As he sees it, he only makes one major mistake in the film, and that is letting another man live. The fact that in the end he is content to foreswear any future intimacy with anybody rather than suffer again says all you need to know about Tom Reagan: In the final shot, he pulls his hat tight.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.