Fargo has come up a lot on this blog over the years, serving as a kind of touchstone for regional movies about the midwest (like Thin Ice and Frozen River) and just being culturally iconic enough to be a plot point for other movies (like Kumiko, The Treasure Thief), but this is the first time we’ve seen it in the theater since it came out, and the first time The Boy saw it all the way through.
It’s a good movie. Tight. It cemented the Coen Brothers as legitimate auteurs in Hollywood Establishment, though they personally seem to change nothing about themselves, any more than they did when Miller’s Crossing first got really favorable critical notice. They followed this up with a little flop known as The Big Lebowski which Siskel & Ebert excoriated because (and I am not making this up), Fargo was about poor people and The Big Lebowski was about rich people.
Your periodic reminder that movie critics are have the same gut reactions to things regular moviegoers have and then backfill them with nonsense to make it sound like they know what they’re talking about.
Fargo begins with a lie about the movie being based on true events, which at this point in my understanding of the Coens I’m attributing as part of their overarching philosophy that nobody knows anything. Nobody knows what’s going on. And nobody knows cause and effect. Or perhaps just, “We plan. God laughs.” (Hail, Caesar! is the only exception tot his I can think of.) This little blurb at the front of Fargo becomes the vignette about the dybbuk in A Serious Man.
The story is that Jerry Lundergaard needs a lot of money. (One of the more tantalizing questions in cinema history is why he needs the money. He has no apparent drug habit, no side-girl, no apparent gambling debts. It’s almost as if his moral failings are innate, which raises in itself a lot interesting questions.) His father-in-law has a lot of money but (rightly) doesn’t really trust Jerry much at all. So he gets in touch with a shady guy named Carl to arrange for his wife to be kidnapped. Carl has a pal Gaear as an accomplice, but Gaear is kind of a loose cannon, and a lot of people end up dead before the story’s over.
The first murders occur in Brainerd, where it falls to local sheriff Marge Gunderson, 7-months-pregnant, to solve the case which takes her from the Twin Cities all the way to the titular Fargo. Marge is really the main character here, representing the entire “Minnesota nice” culture. In fact, the key to this movie is a part that has puzzled me from the second or third time I saw it.
This is a tight movie. Everything in it has a purpose. Sometimes, you can say, defensibly, that a scene serves to demonstrate character, but that’s a little flabby, so I was never happy with my understanding of this sequence where Marge meets up with an old high school classmate, the twitchy Mike Yanagita. Mike’s Minnesota-Nice breaks down as he sheds tears over his deceased wife, and the kind-hearted Marge is moved to comfort him. Shortly after, she discovers that Mike’s got mental problems. He was never married to the woman—and she isn’t even dead and Marge should give her a call.
I never could figure this scene out. Mike’s connected to nobody in the film. Nothing happens in that pair of encounters that forwards the plot, like when Marge and her husband are at the buffet and someone walks in a police report. I had heard someone (Frances McDormand, I thought) suggest that Marge was sorta feeling the waters out for an affair, but apart from primping her hair as she walks in, there’s not just no indication of that, there’s negative indication of it, as every slight advance from Mike makes Marge visibly and (gasp!) even vocally uncomfortable.
I think the hair primping is a sign of Marge’s (ever so slight) flaws, but I think what we’re seeing is pride. Marge is worried about how she’s doing in life, with her painter husband vying to get his painting on a bird-theme set of stamps and her first child on the way. But there’s no lust there.
But now it seems so obvious: Marge has come to Minneapolis to see Shep, and that leads her to Jerry’s car dealership. Jerry’s answer to the question about missing cars is glib, and he’s agitated by it. But because of the whole Minnesota-nice thing, she just takes him on face value. It’s her discovering that someone might lie about something in order to manipulate her that makes her go back to the car dealership. That in turn rattles Jerry’s cage enough for him to flee the interview, and accelerates his final doom.
This is underscored by Marge’s final words to the murderous Gaear: “There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.” She doesn’t understand it. Not just her, but every Minnesotan who deals with a real monster—like the waitress smiling at the distraught Jerry, the hapless parking lot attendants Carl deals with, and so on—is nonplussed by fairly common rudeness and can’t really grasp an awfulness that goes beyond that.
As with all Coen brothers movie, we loved it and multiple screenings are worthwhile.