Since the Academy Awards a few weeks ago, there’s been a lull in content on Popcorn Culture. That’s mostly due to the lack of good movies being released, as always happens around this time of year. The Grand Budapest Hotel and Nymphomaniac are around the corner, but they’re not in theaters near me yet. So to compensate for this drought, I’m introducing a new series. It’s something I’ve really never done before, so it should be interesting to see how it goes. Every so often, when there’s some downtime on the site, I’ll write up a review of one of my favorite films of all time. The inaugural post will be for the 1996 Coen Bros. classic Fargo. Enjoy!
There’s not too much of Fargo in Fargo. It’s the town in the beginning of the film where the hapless Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) meets two criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) and pays them to kidnap his wife, and it’s not visited again afterwards. Most of the action doesn’t even take place in the same state. But no one remembers this movie for Brainerd, Minnesota. Why Fargo?
Well, Fargo is really a movie about being out of your depth, about betraying decency and ethics without the slightest clue of how to do so. The Coen Brothers’ filmography has a strong theme of morality running through it, with the many trials of Llewyn Davis in their most recent picture being a good example. It’s also a movie about the virtues of keeping things small. The final scene of the film, in which Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) congratulates her husband for getting his artwork featured on a stamp, drives this home. He’s disappointed that the stamp isn’t a very popular denomination, but Marge assures him that people will always need the smaller stamps, for “whenever they raise the postage.” Fargo, North Dakota may not be the center of all the drama, but it’s a highly significant location. Jerry Lundegaard had to travel over two-hundred miles to get to Fargo and meet with the kidnappers. He went way outside his element, literally and figuratively. But Jerry wanted more. He wanted something bigger than what he had. Fargo’s not just a location, it’s a symbol for Jerry’s incompetence, and his hubris. If he hadn’t strained to reach for something better, everything would have worked out fine.
That’s a strange message for a film to have, if you think about it. How many films are about the rewards of not pushing boundaries and breaking barriers? But it’s not like Fargo is some fascistic ode to conformity. Nothing in the film is that polarized. The sky is an endless expanse of gray, uniform in its ambiguousness. The fresh white snow that blankets every surface is always marked by something darker. Usually it’s blood. Red-on-white makes for a striking contrast. In such a seemingly-innocent locale, acts of evil stand out a whole lot more.
That’s not exactly fresh territory, of course. David Lynch was covering very similar material in Blue Velvet ten years before Fargo was released, and he wasn’t the first to do it either. What makes Fargo stand out is that it doesn’t rely too heavily on irony to tell its story. The “seemingly idyllic town hiding a dark secret” trope hangs a lot on schadenfreude; we enjoy watching perfectly harmonious communities torn apart by greed and violence because it reminds us that the people who shine like beacons of hope and prosperity are just as flawed and susceptible to temptation as we are. But again, that’s not what Fargo is ultimately going for. This isn’t a movie that’s designed to make you feel good about yourself. Its ostensible use of that trope masks its broader sentiment towards humanity. Yes, all of us are flawed and susceptible to temptation. And look at how awful things can get because of that.
It’s not all grim, though. Fargo also has Frances McDormand as police chief Marge Gunderson, one of my favorite cinematic characters of all time. She’s the reason that Fargo doesn’t fall into the typical rhythms of that “small town” trope. In that kind of movie, the protagonist tends to be unaware of the malice surrounding their town until they stumble across it. Kyle MacLachlan’s character in Blue Velvet happens to find a severed ear in a field, and things start to unravel from there. Marge is different. She doesn’t solve this mystery by accident. She’s a great detective, and she uses the way people expect her to act to her advantage. Look at this scene, where she interrogates Jerry at his dealership:
She commands that room from the instant she walks in, and not with a single overt display of power. It’s all subtleties, like how she sits down before asking Jerry if she can. She doesn’t drop that Midwestern charm, but she gives it a razor-sharp edge. There’s only a hint of ice in her voice, and she doesn’t use monotone inflection to intimidate. Most importantly, she smiles the whole way through. It’s a brilliant performance by McDormand, and it shows exactly what’s great about Marge as a character. She’s the only person in the film who has complete control of her situation. Not coincidentally, she’s also the only character who never compromises her morality to get what she wants.
Her inability to comprehend the horrible things that these criminals did doesn’t come out of an innocent naïveté. It’s more like disappointment. Her lines at the end of the film to Gaear Grimsrud, the Peter Stormare character who she has just arrested, illustrate this:
She says she doesn’t understand it, but it’s not a genuine question, at least not in that sense. She understands exactly why they did it, and she says as much. They did it for money. She’s saddened by the fact that she does understand, that she lives in a world where people think that getting rich is worth murdering innocent strangers. It’s an existential quandary. The film asks, “Why do people act the way they do?” And it admits that there is no answer. We follow these criminals for the majority of the film. We see them execute every part of this plan. But once it’s over, we don’t have any insight into why they did it.
That’s really what the Coens are telling us. We could delve into every aspect of their backgrounds and histories and try to come up with some psychological motive, but that’s not what it comes down to. Jerry Lundegaard comes from a very different place than them, but that didn’t mean that he was any less culpable in their crimes. Fargo displays the Coens’ signature talent for complex, multi-layered simplicity. There’s a lot going on in this movie, all of it to serve a very uncomplicated message: People are greedy, and greed can easily outweigh morality.
That’s a pretty bleak worldview on its own, and it might be made even bleaker by something else Marge says in that speech. She stresses that “it’s a beautiful day,” and shakes her head at the idea that anyone could be so blinded to it by money. The absurdity of her statement is that it isn’t a beautiful day. The skies are as gray as ever, and there’s a snowstorm softly raging on. Marge has lowered the bar on what constitutes a “beautiful day” because of where she lives. Has she also lowered the bar on humanity? Is the film suggesting that the world is so hateful that the only way to live a happy life is to expect less from it? Or maybe it’s even darker than that, and the Coens are implying that there’s beauty to be found in misery.
Nah. Well, I choose not to think so, anyway. It’s not about lowering your standards. It’s about believing that that snowstorm really is beautiful. You know why Marge was disappointed by Gaear? Because she doesn’t assume that people are inherently bad. And it’s okay, Fargo says, to be disappointed by the world. But it does no good to expect the world to disappoint you. The world of Fargo seems to be eternally trapped in a blizzard. Sure, when you go to bed, you could be sad because it’s probably going to snow tomorrow. Or you could be content, because you know how to endure that blizzard, and you might just wake up with the sun on your face.