Happened into an apartment screening of Miller’s Crossing last night, my favorite Coen Brothers film.
I was surprised to learn on searching this blog that I have never written about it here. I have a distinct recollection of writing about it in the past, but a string search of my hard drives yields nothing.
I see new things in the film every time I watch it. I have a clear memory of the first time I viewed it and understood that Tuturro’s Bernie Birnbaum, along with at least Buscemi’s Mink and quite possibly the character of the Dane, were intended to be not-very-deeply coded gay men. Likewise, Tuturro’s wrenching scene in the forest was not clearly seen by me to function in the technical manner it does until I had watched numerous black-and-white noirs and gangster films – there is no analog to this performance in the original body of work the Coens were emulating here. It’s a raw, naturalistic performance that is at odds with the stylization of not just the film but the entire genre, and this magnifies its beauty and force.
The specific new thing I got last night was that the setting of the closing scene of the film, at Bernie’s funeral, is literally a metaphoric locale. The open grave is accompanied by a pair of incongruous headstones and a short length of ironwork fence, all set into the forest road of what we must take to be the Miller’s Crossing of the film’s title, the presumptive locale of Bernie’s execution and the setting in which the body is found by the Dane and crew thereafter (please note, I am attempting to write this without revealing certain plot mechanics).
On prior viewings I did not spend much time reflecting on the odd appearance of the shooting set, merely mentally cross-referencing the legendary practice of crossroads burials and assuming there was some good reason that they should convert the crossing into a cemetery. Last night, I realized that the funeral and burial within the world of the film’s characters was certainly set at an actual cemetery, but within the world of the film, we are shown that Miller’s Crossing is both Tom Reagan’s crossroad, where he turns away from his mentor for good, and Bernie’s, where he literally meets his end. The moment Tom fingered Bernie for Johnny Casper’s men the fates of both characters are sealed. It’s strange to me that such a transparent reading has escaped me for all these years.