Sunday, September 20, 2009

Miller's Crossing -- ethics and criminals

Director: Joel Coen, 1990.

The Coen brothers like to make films about crime, whether it be murder (Barton Fink), blackmail (Burn After Reading) or kidnapping (Raising Arizona, Fargo). Their third film (although Joel gets sole credit for direction) continues this theme, but focuses on the morals of the criminal underworld. Unlike their amoral Oscar-winner, No Country For Old Men, Miller's Crossing presents criminals with a code of ethics.

Set in an unnamed city on the east coast, it is prohibition era 1930s and Leo (Albert Finney) runs the town. His Irish gang contols the rackets, the liquor, and the gambling. When Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), an Italian subordinate, tells Leo that bookie Bernie (John Turturro) is cheating on him, he wants permission to kill him. But Leo is in love with Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), Bernie's sister, and denies Caspar his desire. Even when Leo's trusted counselor Tom (Gabriel Byrne) suggests this is unwise, Leo stands firm. This obstinacy ignites a gang war between the Irish and the Italians.

In the opening scene, Caspar introduces the theme: "I'm talkin' about friendship. I'm talkin' about character. I'm talkin' about - hell. Leo, I ain't embarrassed to use the word - I'm talkin' about ethics." Strange as it may seem, these two murderous men have a code of ethics. He adds, in an unrecognized note of irony, "It's gettin' so a businessman can't expect no return from a fixed fight. Now, if you can't trust a fix, what can you trust?"

Ethics is a system of moral principles, a code of right and wrong. There must be a foundation for ethics. Where does this come from? Why would Caspar, a vile villain, feel compelled to refer to ethics? It is because it is deeply ingrained. Everyone has a conscience (Rom. 2:15). This is given by God, and it has a purpose to highlight actions and intentions that are morally wrong. Even if we are not religious and do not affirm biblical morals, we have an intrinsic recognition of God, who is outside of us and bigger than we are (Rom. 1:20). Conscience is a gift from God that points us towards him, as he is the only one who can forgive our sins (Mk. 2:7). But conscience can be seared and dulled (1 Tim. 4:2). When it becomes too dull, it loses its effectiveness and then our ears become deaf to its cries.

Caspar adds in another scene, "You double-cross once - where's it all end? An interesting ethical question." He is willing to discuss the ethics of his situation. He is willing to kill a man. But he is not willing to double-cross someone, since that would violate his ethical code. Further, he places high value on respect, and when he is given the "high hat" of disrespect he feels defiled. The Coen brothers illustrate here that all people have an ethic, all people recognize there is right and wrong. Nihilism is not a true or practical philosophy for life.

Tom is the antihero protagonist of this deep, dark movie. Byrne played a similar character in the later The Usual Suspects, but here he is at the very top of his game. Tom is a good counselor but a complex and conflicted character. With the gang war going on, he himself is playing around with Verna and is "friends" with Bernie. Yet nothing is what it seems at Miller's Crossing, a remote forest where gangland executions take place. Miller's Crossing is symbolic of the heart of the gangster.

This takes us to the other main theme of Miller's Crossing: the heart of the criminal. And Tom is at the center of the question. At one point, Verna tells him, "That's you all over, Tom. A lie and no heart." He thinks he loves her, but this could be lust, not love. He is cold and aloof. Does he have a heart? Can a criminal really have a heart? Or is the criminal cold-hearted and cold-blooded, driven by greed and lust?

The biblical prophet Jeremiah focused on the heart as the center of a person. Several thousand years ago he said, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9) Our hearts have been tainted by the original sin of Adam (Gen. 3:1-7) and now we cannot love and we cannot live the way God originally intended for us.

Tom, himself, seems to understand the dishonesty and lack of transparency in the criminal's heart, when he says, "Nobody knows anybody. Not that well." Nothing is what it seems. The superficial is a visage hiding a dark beast within. This is Jeremiah's deceitful heart.

Bernie, though, asks another key question, when Tom leads him deep into the heart of Miller's Crossing for an execution. Pleading with Tom, he begs in self-defense, "they can't make us different people than we are. We're not muscle, Tom. I... I... I... never killed anybody. I used a little information for a chisel, that's all. It's my nature." He believed it was his nature to chisel a little, to lie and cheat. His ethic was not violated since he did not kill. What was Tom's nature? Was he a killer? Could he change his nature? Were Bernie and Tom fixed in stone? Can we even change our nature?

Miller's Crossing offers the Coen brothers' ambiguous answer to this question. But the question cuts straight to the very heart of the gospel of Jesus. If Jeremiah is true, we are depraved. We are like Bernie or Tom. Our natures are corrupt. We need redemption, a new nature, a new heart. Another prophet, Ezekiel, pointed out that our cold hearts of stone would be exchanged for a fresh heart in the new covenant (Ezek. 36:26). And this occurs when we accept our condition and seek this change of nature in Jesus. Paul said it well, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Cor. 5:17)

Copyright 2009, Martin Baggs

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