The Coen Project Part 6: Fargo

In my mind, I draw a dividing line in the filmography of the Coen Brothers at Fargo, the blood-soaked, comedic take on the police thriller genre set in the filmmakers’ native Minnesota. While my appreciation for the Coens’ earlier work has grown over the course of writing this series, Fargo is the first of a run of three films that are touchstones in my life as a movie-watcher, followed by The Big Lebowski and Oh Brother Where Art Thou. But Fargo isn’t just a personal favorite of mine, it’s one of the greatest movies ever made: a riveting and hilarious examination of the ability of humanity to endure in the face of darkness.

A lot was riding on the release of the Coens’ sixth feature. After three consecutive financial failures, Joel and Ethan needed a hit in order to continue making movies on their own terms. Fargo came through in a big way: it was a relative box-office smash, earning $60 million. It racked up seven Oscar nominations, bringing home both Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress for Frances McDormand’s career-defining performance as police chief Marge Gunderson. The Coens had finally struck a major chord with both the critics and the public, setting themselves up for the rest of their careers.

In many aspects, Fargo resembles the Coen’s first film. Like Blood Simple, Fargo is an unraveling vortex of bad decisions and their violent consequences set in an unforgiving and bleak environment. But unlike Blood Simple, it has a ferociously capable, smart, and moral protagonist in the eye of the storm: Marge Gunderson, the Coens’ first true hero.

In defiance of every screenwriting tract ever published, this protagonist doesn’t show up until thirty minutes into the movie. Before that, the story sets itself up from the point of view of Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy), a perfectly nice Minnesota car salesman. Jerry is in a large amount of debt. Thinking big, he hires small-time criminals Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, hoping to extort a large ransom sum from his wealthy father-in-law (Harve Presnell) and split it with his accomplices. This idea is just as stupid as it sounds, and goes even worse than you’d imagine. When bodies start piling up, Marge is summoned onto the case. 

Like Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, Fargo depends heavily on its locational setting. The characters’ manner of expression is specific to Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas, where the culture (and the weather) has more in common with Scandinavia than with New York. Everyone is polite and pleasant all of the time, regardless of their actual feelings. This serves to subvert the police procedural genre in interesting and funny ways. Take this scene, in which Marge questions Jerry in the car dealership. The typical genre cop in this situation would aim to intimidate; “Sir, you have no call to get snippy with me,” is about as rough as Marge gets.

It’s rare to see a woman leading a murder investigation on film, even rarer a pregnant woman. Marge’s condition isn’t portrayed as a burden to be overcome — it doesn’t even get in the way of her police work beyond an eight-second spell of morning sickness: “Well, that passed!”.

Meanwhile, Jerry is too incompetent to safely pull off his nefarious shenanigans. He’s so concerned with the appearance of success (especially in the eyes of his ultra-successful, ultra-masculine father in law) that he bargains with his wife’s life, swindles everyone around him, and ignores his son, all while remaining convinced that he’s a decent guy. He convinces us for a while, too: his “Minnesota Nice” demeanor is just as pleasant as everyone else’s. It takes a while to realize that he’s as much of a villain as Carl and Gaear.

By contrast, Marge’s husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch) gives a very different version of American masculinity, one that wakes up at five in the morning to fix his wife breakfast before she heads to a crime scene. Norm and Marge are equals in their relationship. He designs stamps, she puts killers in jail: “Heck Norm, you know, we’re doin’ pretty good”.

wiw-fargo-marge-and-norm

Marge isn’t a hero just because she’s a great detective. She’s a hero because of her compassion, patience and utter lack of cynicism in the face of the relentless bleakness of the world around her. “And it’s a beautiful day, ” she reminds the killer in the back of her squad car. Not only does she retain her own humanity, she never for a moment views anyone else as less human than herself, even if she just saw them feed a body through a wood chipper. 

Stray Observations:

  • A paragraph at the beginning of the film states “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987.” This is almost completely false. The Coens lifted a few bits and pieces from real news stories in the area, but that’s it. When asked about it in an interview, Ethan said: “…in warning viewers that we had found our inspiration from a real story, we were preparing them to not view the film like an ordinary thriller”. The way I see it, the fiction of the film has already started when we see this text. 
  • I didn’t talk about the scene in the restaurant with Mike Yanagita, one of the most discussed and theorized-over scenes in the Coens’ filmography. But I did find this great analysis of it by comic book writer Matt Fraction.
  • Stand-out moment: the look of utter betrayal an Gaear’s face when Carl suggests they shouldn’t have pancakes for dinner.
  • Steve Buscemi’s best line is heard over the phone in the car dealership: “Things have changed. Circumstances, Jerry, beyond, uh, the acts of God. Force Majeure.”
  • Peter Stormare is exactly what Ryan Gosling is gonna look like in ten years, right?

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