“I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Lou.”
“Blood has been shed, Jerry”
During Christmas break in the year 1996, by my guess anyway, my friend Jake Wilkinson and I went to our local Video Update store. Gone forever are the days where two high school friends would browse around a video rental store looking for something to watch for the evening. On this particular night, we settled on renting “Fargo”.
Neither of us knew who the Coen Bros were. I had never heard of Frances McDormand or Steve Buscemi or William H Macy. Copies of “Fargo” were propped up on the back shelf of this movie rental store in the “new releases” section. Something about the cover of this movie featuring the barren snow of a North Dakota winter and a female police detective crouched down in the snow over a bloodied dead body compelled us to check it out. Plus, this was billed as a thriller so we figured there would be some suspense and action.
“Fargo” was striking to me after the first viewing as I had never seen any movie quite like it. How does one classify “Fargo”? Is the movie a comedy? A crime drama? A thriller? At a time when Quentin Tarantino was re-mixing genre, the Coen Bros were turning genre on its head. Made for an estimated $7 million, the film only grossed $25,882,374 at the box office. A true independent movie that caught fire with critic reviews and word of mouth and ended up as a Best picture nominee at the Oscars (pathetically, “Fargo” lost to the overlong, melodrama “The English Patient”). Roger Ebert not only named it one of the best movies of 1996 but later added “Fargo” to his Great Movies collection.
Funny enough, the action takes place in Brainerd more than Fargo (makes for a better movie title). Jerry Lundegaard (played by Macy) meets up with two low-life crooks to hatch what is supposed to be a relatively small time cash grab. Lundegaard seeks to employ Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi in a major role after a cameo in “The Hudsucker Proxy”) and Gaear Grimsrud (the Marlboro man lookalike Peter Stormare) to kidnap his own wife in order to get his wealthy father-in-law (Harve Presnell) to pay $80,000 in ransom. Of course, the intention is to split this amount amongst themselves. Sneaky Lundegaard though, a schmuck car sales executive who works for his father-in-law, is going to tell his father-in-law the ransom is $1 million and his plan is to pilfer this money to buy up parking lots to make his own living.
To attend to the cliché that things don’t go according to plan, in this case, would be a chasm of an understatement. By the time the famous woodchipper scene comes around, the body count has reached Shakespearean tragedy proportions.
After the shooting of a police officer and the killing of random passerbys who witness that murder, one of cinema’s most famous characters debuts on the screen- Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand won the Oscar for this brilliant performance). Making a quick assessment of the crime scene with a more stunning efficiency then her male partner who stands on the snow covered field overlooking the grisly slayings while saying “yah” repeatedly, she begins to track the bumbling criminals.
People can certainly discuss the genre classification of “Fargo” but I see the film, in a way, as a kind of clash of cultures. Media in 2017 is fascinated by this idea of rural Americans versus big city Americans and examining that trope in the context of this film is an interesting discussion. After all, the setting is the small town of Brainerd. Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud are said to be from the big city. In other words, corrupt criminals from the big city come into a community of nice, country folk who think of themselves as good and morally upright (perhaps with the exception of the swindling Jerry Lundegaard). The criminals participate in a half-baked kidnapping for ransom plot, hook up with prostitutes and kill people.
One would be mistaken for thinking the Coens were holding onto the idea that these rural people were stupid or hopelessly naïve. I mean, some of them are but recall, Marge Gunderson is one of these rural Americans. She is portrayed as being incredibly intelligent and dutifully dedicated to solving this horrific crime in her community. The wood chipper scene (featuring McDormand, Stormare and Buscemi’s foot) at the end showcases her bravery for confronting a brutal, if incompetent, evil on her own.
Until a recent viewing of “Fargo”, I thought the only flaw in the movie was a bizarre scene where Marge goes to meet with a high school classmate, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park). He is clearly trying to sleep with her and she is currently married and pregnant as she explains to him. The desperation from this classmate becomes pathetic. The next morning, a high school girlfriend calls Marge and tells her that Mike was lying about his wife passing away (which he had explained to Marge through tears). The realization comes that a lonely and pathetic individual was using an emotional sob story to try and manipulate Marge to go to bed with him. Now, ask yourself: what is the point of this scene in the movie? My first couple of viewings, I had no idea but this time I realized what comes after this strange encounter. Marge goes back to interview Jerry Lundegaard for a second time. The scene with the high school classmate mirrors the lies and manipulation that Lundegaard had used in his first interview with Marge. In other words, it dawns on her that Lundegaard is lying.
One of the major scenes in the movie, of course, is post-wood chipper. Marge has arrested Gaear and he is riding in the back seat of her police cruiser. The monologue goes: “So, that was Mrs. Lundegaard (Kristin Rudrud) on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money? 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.” This usually makes me laugh because the first instinct that a viewer has may be to go to how hopelessly naïve Marge sounds trying to assign a moral lesson to the chaotic and stupid evil which has transpired. However, I don’t think the Coens mean this scene as a joke at all. When faced with scenes that are unfathomable to her small town life worldview, Marge has to assign a moral lesson to try and make sense of the horror and the randomness of the crime. She has to categorize the vicious proceedings and fit them into how she sees her life and the world in general.
“Fargo” feels like a milestone culmination of the Coen Bros work and somewhat of a mixture of their previous films blended together. A little bit of “Blood Simple” is here as well as the comedy of “Raising Arizona” and some of the seriousness of “Miller’s Crossing”. Not to take away from “Fargo” though as the movie stands well on its own and is certainly original. There was no movie like “Fargo” until it was released and now there are dozens of cheap imitators.
Barren, snowy landscape captured by the usual Coen cinematographer Roger Deakins accentuates the masterpiece of “Fargo” and is another character in and of itself. The harsh winter snow will cover over the bag full of a million dollars that Carl Showalter leaves next to a simple wire fence that he incompetently tries to mark with an ice scraper. It will soon be buried for a long time. The entire point of the criminal plot here becomes meaningless. Chaotic randomness up against Marge Gunderson’s sincere “moral of the story” viewpoints butt heads and maybe there actually is a resolution in the final scene.
“Fargo” is rightfully on a good many “best movies of all time” lists. Not only one of the Coen’s greatest but one for the, yah, ages.
Lester Lauding Level: 5 (out of 5)
Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):
Miller’s Crossing (review here)
The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)
Raising Arizona (review here)
Blood Simple (review here)
Barton Fink (Review here)