Fargo (1996, Joel Coen)
Just about everything there is to know about the Coen brothers’ work is embodied in their deservedly celebrated Fargo, which may still stand as their most famous film. By seeing this single movie, one understands all of the reasons the two influential and enterprising deadpan storytellers are celebrated — and decried. In bracingly nonchalant fashion, it relates the story of a murder for hire in Minnesota: a terrified, in-deep-shit everyasshole car salesman (William H. Macy) hires a couple of nitwits (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his innocent wife (Kristin Rudrüd) so he can pick up some ransom money. No one involved is terribly competent and the matter extrapolates into death and ruination of nearly all involved — that is, with the exception of the police chief on the case (Frances McDormand), who runs through a snowbound landscape (while pregnant!) with calm intensity and easy, serious command.
Set in the bleakest dregs (as Joel and Ethan Coen see it, anyway) of the midwestern U.S., all florescent interiors, colorless homes, dive bars, unstated dread, the film sets its characters into motion with what some may term a cruel detachment. The result is witty — making much of the traditional Minnesotan understatement of the Coens’ youth, which in this guise is as strong a comedic tool as Ealing Studios’ careful comprehension of the British middle and upper classes — but also gripping and full of sweep. Over a decade into their illustrious career, it’s evident that the Coens are master storytellers, and despite the relative levity of this film, which some saw (not without justification) as mocking its stereotypes of homey middle Americans, it is extremely effective and tense as both black comedy and thriller.ch
The Coens are cynical, of course, and this is not inherently a criticism any more than it would be of Robert Hamer or Alexander Mackendrick. Their fusion of the real and the cartoonish — used to such great effect in The Hudsucker Proxy, their previous film and one of their best — allows them license to look upon the world through a prism of banality: the banality of evil, yes (the killers downing beers and hooking up with locals before carrying out a hit; Macy covering up his misdeeds like a child who didn’t do his homework), but also the banality of innocence, of America, of light music, of bad dates and fast food and TV, of everything just short of life itself. They don’t go that far, because their humor is cynical and dark but not cold or bitter, nor were the Ealing filmmakers.
Fargo‘s most obvious ancestor, obvious enough that it’s surprising it doesn’t come up more often, is Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, the great director’s 1970s comeback that startled many with its explicit ultra-violence and the fact that much of it was as hilarious as it was terrifying. The Coens aren’t quite as skilled with this tonal trickery as they are with the basic, indelibly strange facts of their story, nearly all of which they make something of, from wood chippers to paintings of ducks. In both films, the ugliness and horror of the story is offset by the charm of the characters (including, to some extent, the villains) and the filmmakers’ unmistakable affection for and familarity with their locations. Frenzy was Hitchcock’s return to the working-class London in which he grew up, and when he makes fun of it lightly, it’s because of a degree of love inherited from his youth. The Coens are making use of real-world benchmarks in exploring Brainerd and Fargo, and while there is so much to mock in many of the shady figures they create, just as many people are unmistakably, flawlessly kind-hearted and decent. The film ribs them but also understands that they are the redemption from all the nastiness depicted.
Fargo takes many of the right lessons from Frenzy, including the strange but striking motif of people eating, but it misses one of its most important: it fails to take its depictions of brutality seriously for even so much as a second, whereas our attachment to Barry Foster’s lonely gentleman fell to pieces the moment he raped a woman and Hitchcock refused to make it cute, sexy or coy. It’s more important to the Coens that we are made hysterical by Buscemi and Stormare than it is that we find them menacing, so even the most dreadful moments in their kidnapping and murder are played for laughs, as evidenced by how much of their intentionally facile, round-in-circles dialogue has made its way so irreversibly into the culture. That’s the major crux in the case against the Coen brothers’ entire filmography — that their love of gimmickry and narrative oneupsmanship overturns any humane attachment they may have to a world or its characters — and it’s nearly inarguable that the tone of Fargo is uncomfortable and disturbing in more ways than were necessarily intended.
There is a major component of the film, however, that prevents this argument from entirely holding water: not just McDormand’s plucky police chief Marge herself, but her relationship to her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch). The film sets up their marriage as the eye of a hurricane, peaceful and beautiful and pure; their quiet affection for one another — crucially, not passion, though the film gives no reason to assume that it’s wholly absent from their lives — is something we seldom see in movies, especially Hollywood movies. Yes, the film mocks even these two gently — their accents are slightly exaggerated, and their calm reaction to every crisis that comes in their direction is the classic Americana of fake stoicism — but there’s so much more to them than the comedy. Marge’s life gives this universe its moral code, and trips up anyone making the case that the Coens loathe the participants in their merrily grim stories.
Generally, the closer the film concentrates on its points of mild absurdity, the better it is, even if it is at times a crackerjack thriller with dandy car chases and confrontations. The humor is a breath of fresh air in many ways: constant and entirely grown out of characterization and performance. Nearly every line delivery is funny. The divide this creates between the story’s flippancy and its interest in people is both fascinating and troubling, but is less a serious debit to the film than a factor in just how unique it felt at the time — and still does, to a slightly lesser extent.
As brilliant as McDormand is, the performance of the picture is William H. Macy’s — his completely pathetic weaseling and histrionic outbursts are so sharp they call to mind Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby. As much of an asshole as he is, the Coens work much harder than ever before to ensure that the audience recognizes all of his tics and discomfort. Few of us have behaved so erratically or maliciously on such a scale, but few of us won’t relate to the agony of being caught in a lie. By keeping this character’s behavior to its base human essence, Fargo is made all the more haunting a statement about the human capacity for darkness.
And the film’s economy is the sort of thing that you wish more movies strove for — think particularly of how so much happens in the last ten minutes. No scene is unnecessarily extrapolated beyond the bare minimum. So bless them for trusting their instincts and leaving perhaps their film that is most ripe for interpretation and (over?)analysis, moreover for making one that despite its reputation has considerable warmth and immense charm at the heart of it. It has the potential to be the friendliest black comedy of our time. Unfortunately, there seems to nearly always be a caveat in a Coen film, and much as the presence of Marge subverts an interpretation of Fargo as an unforgiving, unfeeling meta-world, one specific problem trumps the viewer’s ability to stay on board with its breezy comic intelligence and mild but welcome humanism.
Every damn time I see Fargo, I can’t help it; I wish like crazy that they didn’t kill off Mrs. Lundegaard. It just seems to me that it would make the capturing of her husband so much more cathartic, and it’s likely the most excessively mean-spirited note stricken in a career with an unfortunate number of them. All we see is her struggle against an enemy in complete shock, and the film laughs at her struggle because it’s seen through the prism of the two characters causing it — and thereafter, we are still sold on them as somehow “cute,” their major facet — in total Tarantino fashion — being the complete idiocy of their one-sided conversations. Not that it’s not funny to think of a guy who’s just kidnapped someone upset because his partner doesn’t want to talk to him, but without permitting Rudrüd’s character some sort of dignity that never comes, the film just seems tone-deaf and vile. Fargo occasionally feels like a Kids in the Hall sketch stretched to feature length — but one major difference is that the Kids never were this callous toward any of their characters even in three-minute skits.
The best joke in the movie is the very first one, incidentally (which is saying a lot) — telling the baldfaced lie that it’s a true story for absolutely no reason is a demented and glorious act and is one fringe benefit of the Coens’ often deplorable attitude. But the beating heart in Fargo is palpable even if you have to look for it. Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon once posited pessimistically that all of the class dichotomy and romantic disappointment of the world is immaterial in the end when placed against the larger reality of life and death’s sheer brevity. The Coens make a similar zero-sum argument here but one that’s, in its fashion, a fair bit warmer: after the mystery is solved and the criminals dead or caught, Marge and her husband sit sleepily in their bed and talk quietly about how much longer until the baby is born. They’re exhausted and don’t have much to say beyond pleasantries and goodnights. But their love for one another and their as-yet-unborn child radiates off the screen. That’s the triumph of the profound over the insincere, and that’s in the end why Fargo wins out against so many conflicting forces — including the men who wrote and directed it.