As a lifelong resident of the Midwest, I’ve heard many variations of “Oh, I never thought something like that would happen around here.” I grew up in Indiana farm country where we kept our doors unlocked at night. Bad things didn’t happen. In Indiana, we chalked it up to Hoosier hospitality.
I’m not sure what they chalk it up to in cities like Brainerd, Minneapolis, or Bismarck. But they surely have their own variant. It’s that happy-go-lucky attitude that is almost another character in Fargo, the Coen brothers’ 1996 crime caper.
Joel and Ethan Coen are masters of vernacular. Many of their films use specific locales and allow the language of that particular place to inhabit the film. There may be no better example of this in their filmography than in Fargo. The folksy banter of police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and the cheery Minnesota phrases like “Yoou betcha” and “Yoou doohn’t say” bring the Midwestern ambiance to life.
Another common theme in the Coen brothers’ work is putting normal people in abnormal situations. We feel like Marge could be someone who lives just down the block from us, with her hard-working attitude and her sweet marriage to her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch). One of the many masterful directorial choices in this film is that we see the normal life of Marge and Norm – the early morning breakfast and the car that needs to be jumped. But we don’t see any of that until we’ve already been fully introduced to the abnormal situation.
Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is a Minnesota car salesman who has reached the end of his rope. He is being crushed by mountains of debt, and he must devise a plan to pay it all back. In the film’s opening scene, he meets with Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) and Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) to work out the details of the plan.
They are going to kidnap Jerry’s wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd), so that Jerry can get money from his rich father-in-law, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell). What could possibly go wrong?
As you can surely guess, so much can go wrong and does. As is always the case in a Coen brothers’ movie, all the characters are incredibly well written, but I am always specifically impressed by Jerry’s character. The combo of the writing and the performance from Macy is just incredible. What could easily fall into a cliché (lying car salesman) becomes, instead, a sharp picture of a man motivated by obligation who is going deeper and deeper into a quiet madness as the pressure closes in on him.
One scene shows this, in particular. Jerry has just come from a meeting with Wade and his business partner, Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg). Wade and Stan thought Jerry was bringing them an investment, but Jerry just wanted seed money to pay off his other entanglements. When Wade and Stan say no to the deal, Jerry walks out to his car alone and scrapes the ice of his windshield in a fit of rage.
Again, the performance by Macy is a powerhouse, but it is also supported by some of the best work from a frequent Coen brothers’ collaborator – the great cinematographer Roger Deakins. One of my favorite shots of the entire film comes as Jerry is walking to his car and we see the snowy parking lot from overhead. He is completely alone. There’s a symmetry to the shot, but also something about the lines in the snow that’s just a little bit off. It’s a beautiful shot, and one of the many reasons that Deakins is considered a living legend.
Another collaborator I’d be remiss not to mention is Carter Burwell, who composed the film’s score. The main title motif is so unique and recognizable. It is based on the Norwegian folk song “The Lost Sheep (Den bortkomne sauen).” I found myself letting the menu screen of my DVD of the film continue to play the music after my most recent rewatch. When I think of the film, that music instantly comes to mind.
I must admit, the first time I watched Fargo, I wasn’t all that impressed by it. I came to it looking for deeper meaning, trying to squeeze out some grand notion from its scenes. I remember a somewhat flat feeling when I came to the end. I had surely enjoyed parts of it, but I wasn’t wowed by it either.
Then I watched it again… and again… and again. Each time, I became less focused on what I was trying to beat out of it and more focused on the characters and the story and the craft. What’s fascinating is that I found, as I immersed myself in the film and let it wash over me on its own standards, meaning and subtext did come through. But you simply can’t get it all on one watch alone. This is such a great story inhabited by such memorable characters that if you’re watching the film trying to project your own thoughts onto it, you’re going to miss the treasures that the film has in store. I learned that the hard way, but now Fargo is one of my favorite films.
One thing that did surprise me as I watched the film recently was how long the film takes to introduce Marge. That character so dominates this film in my mind that I thought I remembered her showing up in the first couple scenes. But the Coens take great care in setting up Jerry’s plot before Marge comes in and steals the show.
Much has been said about Frances McDormand’s mountain of a performance. It is one of the greats. She won an Academy Award for Best Actress for this role, and it was well-deserved. From the accent, to the head nods, to her ability to go from a crime scene to a tranquil interaction at home, McDormand nails every single choice. In a film riddled with top-tier talent, McDormand shines above them all.
It is Marge – the local police chief who also happens to be pregnant – who follows the threads of this homespun crime story to their grim ends. Along the way she questions prostitutes and canvasses a crime scene while trying not to puke from her bout of morning sickness. But none of it brings her down. She faces it all with strength and a cheery attitude.
There is one scene that has always been a bit confounding to me. Late in the film, Marge’s police work takes her to the Twin Cities. There she meets an old friend named Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) for dinner. It is an incredibly awkward interaction as Mike seems to make a pass at Marge though he knows she is married and he is in the middle of telling her about his recently-deceased wife. Only later, Marge hears from another friend that Mike was never married and his “wife” is alive and well. From the sounds of it, Mike had stalked her for years and now lives with his parents.
The scene doesn’t seem to fit and it’s just so awkward. And yet, I think it does show us another shade of Marge’s character. We see how she reacts to abnormal situations that are difficult to understand. We also get to see another example of her incredible “good”-ness. It won’t be the last time in the film that she faces something that is difficult to understand.
When she finally gets to the bottom of the case, she comes face-to-face with Gaear in a scene that has become famous for its use of a wood chipper. Later, we watch as Marge drives away with Gaear in her squad car. As she questions him in the rearview mirror, we see shades of another law enforcement officer that would come in a later Coen brothers film – Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Just as he would later attempt to do, Marge is trying to understand it all. It just doesn’t make sense. “And it’s a beautiful day,” she says.
Only a true Midwesterner could look at the snowy haze she sees outside her squad car and call it beautiful. Most people would only see the snow and the cold, but Marge knows the sun is out beyond all that.
Bad things happen everywhere – even in the small-town life of the Midwest. But that small-town life still has value. Those daily interactions have worth. If nothing else, they allow us to find even a little beauty in every day.