Friday, August 21, 2020

Fargo (1996)

USA / UK, 98 minutes
Directors / writers / editors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Photography: Roger Deakins
Music: Carter Burwell
Cast: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Harve Presnell, Kristin Rudrud, John Carroll Lynch, Steve Park, Jose Feliciano, Bruce Campbell, Petra Boden

Pretty much everyone I know likes Fargo, and I do too, but over the years you can't help noting a grumbling undercurrent or even animus from some quarters toward the Coen brothers, the directors, writers, and editors of the picture. At least into the 21st century, naysayers seemed to see everything by them only in terms of adolescent disrespect. It probably doesn't help that the Coens are obvious aesthetes of grotesque violence but the main point seems to be that they are making fun of ordinary normal people all the time in their movies—that, in fact, that's what their movies are about. At least with Fargo, I feel like I'm in a reasonably good position to judge, as I was born and raised in Minnesota and knew both Lundegaards and Gundersons. The point I feel may get lost too often is how good the Coens are at what they do. Before it is anything else, Fargo is superior neo-noir, with a headlong narrative of despair that constantly ratchets tension as greed and human foolishness conspire to ruin multiple lives all at once.

For the most part, I think the Coens get the Scandinavian kitsch of Minnesota pretty much right. Although the movie claims to be based on a true story and isn't, what the Coens are doing is closer to reporting, not mocking. Yes, there is some exaggeration. But not that much. The accents are not always this broad, and the people generally not as stupid as some of those here, such as a policeman who can't figure out basic facts about a crime scene. Or, an even smaller throwaway, a 'cake-and-steak cashier with a certain classic vacuous affect. You can feel the Coens leaning a little extra hard into the white-bread, horrifying evil of Jerry Lundegaard, who works as executive sales manager at an auto dealership owned by his father-in-law and needs a lot of money fast, thinking he can score a big business deal. But leaning into his evil is also a natural element of this story.

Two small but curious points in a movie that is otherwise very nearly perfect neo-noir have always struck me and may speak to the reputation of the Coens for random mockery. The first is naming the movie Fargo but setting most of it in Minnesota. Fargo is in North Dakota, if right on the border with Minnesota, and it's the largest city in North Dakota. The first scene in the movie is set there but otherwise Fargo has nothing to do with anything here. Did the Coens think Fargo reads as dumber or funnier (or something) than Minneapolis in national perception? The IMDb trivia roundup notes merely that the Coens thought it was a better title than Brainerd, where a fair amount of the action does take place. I have to admit that sounds like an ironical dodge and doesn't really answer the question. I'm not even sure they're right—I think Brainerd would have been a pretty good title. It's possible that would be my Minnesota background speaking, as all the stuff about Brainerd and Paul Bunyan (not to mention winter and snow and frigid conditions) resonated pretty hard for me.

The other place where the movie seems to go willfully astray of its mission is an encounter the Brainerd police investigator Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand in a nearly perfect performance) has with an old high school classmate, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park). He calls her in the middle of the night after he sees her in a TV story about the case, and seems to want to reconnect with her romantically, even though she is seven months pregnant and obviously happily married. This encounter has nothing to do with the case. It does serve, perhaps a little, as an example of repressed so-called "Minnesota nice" but it's an extreme example. The scene is so awkward it's just a giant artificial cringe, and later, when we find out more, Yanagita only comes off like an even stranger creep. I'm tempted to spin something out about Jews and Asians adjusting to Minnesota norms—and perhaps the Coens making fun of those norms specifically, if implicitly—but I'm really not sure what the character and scene are doing here. At least it does end up contributing to the mounting suffocating air of creepiness and despair the Coens pull off.

Fargo is one of those movies where everything goes wrong. You just watch it happening. Some people get their just comeuppance. Others are innocent and are hurt. It's a bland unfeeling universe we've got here. Jerry Lundegaard is a recognizable Minnesota type, as is his wife, as is her father, Jerry's father-in-law. But they are also recognizable human types, which is what makes this a great noir. Everything goes wrong and the worst have motives and take actions that are unforgivable. Some are so bad it's almost traumatizing even to know they exist. It indulges lots of true-crime elements to shore up that side. Marge Gunderson stands at the other extreme: wise fecund earth goddess mother, patiently righting the wrongs going on all around her, with never a shred of bitterness or cynicism, only sadness at human weakness. I mean the Coens really pile it on here, but they're not really making fun of anything as much as sharpening the contrasts. Marge's husband Norm is a wildlife artist who goes to sleep watching nature documentaries and gets up with Marge on her early morning calls to make her eggs. They are recognizable Minnesota types too. All this is reminding me that I think I need to get to that TV show they made of Fargo a few years ago. I heard a lot of good things about it. The movie is essential.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, for me, Marge and Norm act as this warm counterpoint to the savage caricatures of Jerry, etc. Like the comparison w/ Scandinavian noir, too. But I know whites w/out college educations from outside Minnesota/ND who felt like they were being insultingly satirized by Fargo. As if the Coen's were making fun of all small town vernacular speakers. By contrast, I liked the specificity in Fargo's accents; the way it gives character to place in the movie. Good to know it's relatively accurate.