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Fargo

Fargo

By Jack Murphy • September 6th, 2013
DECONSTRUCTING CINEMA, PART 61: FARGO
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Working Title Films

Original release: March 8th, 1996
Running time: 98 minutes

Writers and directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Composer: Carter Burwell

Cast: William H Macey, Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Bruce Bohne

Scene: 00:34:09 to 00:37:09

Deconstructing Cinema: One Scene At A Time, the complete series so far

Fargo

Set in the winter of 1987 in Minneapolis, Fargo tells the story of down-on-his-luck car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H Macey) and how the seemingly harmless fake kidnapping of his wife went horribly wrong. How a kidnapping can be harmless is a mystery, especially considering everything that unfolds throughout the film, but I’ll leave that until later on.

Split into 3 main interweaving layers, first up is Jerry’s family, including his wife, the second layer includes two convicts Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) the ones entrusted with the task of pretending to steal Jerry’s wife, and the third layer involves police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) on the hunt for all of the above. These three separate but interacting worlds all collide throughout the film and result in terrible consequences for everyone except the most honest person, Marge.

Fargo is a typical Coen brothers film; it has a witty script, a fantastic cast and is very well shot, right down to every last scene. It improves on repeat watch, as most good films do, and can be watched for its aesthetic, just for an easy laugh, or intently with the effect of a drama. There’s a slightly desolate undertone which is embellished by the snowy backdrop and set against a plot embroiled with lie upon lie upon life.

I’ve always seen Fargo as a tragic-comedy with its fine balance between light entertainment and drama.

“Some say tragedy teaches us the power of chance, of the force of contingency in determining whether the virtuous thrive […] tragedy does indeed focus on what can go wrong in the actions of the best of men.” ¹

Jerry doesn’t seem like a bad person, and through ‘the power of chance’, maybe through his own volition or not, he’s fallen on hard times. He needs money and he needs it fast to get himself out of a jam, and despite his sound business plan he doesn’t have enough clout with his father-in-law to easily remedy his financial problems. If Jerry had any sense of virtue before the start of the film, it’s well and truly gone with his kidnap plan. The element of comedy in this tragic-comedy comes from what’s gone wrong in the actions of what’s possibly not one of ‘the best of men’, and the best of men in Fargo is the softly spoken pregnant police officer.

Fargo

There’s one scene that particularly emphasises the Coen brothers’ choice of crossed genres: shortly after the two convicts-for-hire have shot an innocent policeman and a couple of bystanders late at night, the local police of Brainerd are on the scene to find out what’s happened. The policing duo comprises of the very pregnant police chief Marge and the fairly dim-witted police officer Lou (Bruce Bohne).

One of the main sources of the comedy for me in this scene, and I understand I’m being a bit childish with this, is the juxtaposition of the very serious crime the officers are dealing with and their silly accents. It’s not that these characters have absurd voices, or that they are putting them on for comic effect, it’s purely that everything they say sounds slightly bemused and incredibly laid back.

MARGE:
So what’s the deal, now? Gary says triple homicide?

LOU:
Yah, looks pretty bad…

MARGE:Where is everyone?

LOU:
Well – it’s cold Margie…

MARGE:Ah, geez. So…Aw, geez.

In light of a brutal murder in a quiet town this doesn’t feel like the police officers have a firm grasp of the seriousness of the situation. They aren’t making fun of what’s happened; it’s just that their accents are so gentle and playful that it’s impossible to take the scene seriously. This is a world apart from the brutal cop films set in the big cities: swear words are replaced with ‘geez’ and general niceties. There’s a feeling that if you close your eyes these characters could easily be watching television or sitting in a park.

Fargo

The level of understatement with their accent ties into the idea of ‘Minnesota nice’ which is a stereotype that’s attributed to residents of Minnesota and it means they’re overly polite, courteous, generous and mild mannered. These are all words which could very easily be used to describe Marge in her manner at any point in the film. Even when she’s in the middle of heated conflicts, that sense of niceness is always there. These two police officers are at conflict with themselves in this scene; professionally, this is a terrible situation that they would rarely have to deal with, but their mannerisms always lean back towards a casual, light hearted attitude:

MARGE:
From his foot print he looks like a big fella

LOU:
Ya see something down there, Chief?

MARGE:
Uh – I just, I think I’m gonna barf.

LOU:
Geez, you okay, Margie?

MARGE:
I’m fine – it’s just morning sickness.

The tragedy of the scene is that alongside the funny accents and inane conversation, there’ve been three unnecessary murders. Marge’s funny mannerisms and her pregnancy draws attention away from what’s really happening, but we’re unfortunately drawn back to the problem at hand which is that Jerry’s brought chaos into the little town of Brainerd through his hired crooks. What’s ‘gone wrong’ through Jerry’s poor decisions go even further than the impact on his family, it’s leaked into the lives of innocent bystanders. This form of tragedy looks at the ripple effect and the catastrophic consequences it can have on people beyond the protagonist’s life.

On the other hand, with this scene the line between tragedy and comedy is blurred by the ‘small town mentality’ demonstrated by Marge and Lou. Feeding back into this idea of ‘Minnesota nice’, throughout the film we get the impression everyone knows each other, what they’re up to and all of their sordid little secrets. It seems rather quaint and like a big family that has each others’ best interests at heart. Within this particular scene there’s one line that encapsulates that sense of community:

MARGE:
I’d be very surprised if our suspect was from Brainerd.

This line really says it all: bad things couldn’t happen in Brainerd because of a person from Brainerd. The suspect indeed was not from Brainerd, and the catalyst behind the murders was indeed not from Brainerd, but there’s an undertone of segregation and prejudice about that attitude. There’s the idea that this little town, proud home of Paul Bunyan, couldn’t produce a person capable of murder and its people are essentially infallible in the eyes of the law, contravening the how idea of the law in the first place.

SOURCES:

  • [1] The Psychology of Aristotelian Tragedy in Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics, ed. Rorty (1992) Rorty, referenced in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (New York, London : W. W. Norton & Co. : 2001), p. 1984

This mentality certainly does put Marge at difficult odds; she’s right about the culprit not being from Brainerd, but surely there’s something wrong with that attitude? The man behind this murder, and I think it’s fair to say Jerry is responsible, is a man that adopts this Minnesota nice persona just as much as anyone else, yet he was still capable of horrendous things. The mannerisms of the locals compared with the monsters from the big city, and beyond, speaks volumes about small-town life. It also provokes the question: Is Minnesota nice, really that nice?

These two components of tragedy, Jerry’s poor decisions and their consequences against the negative connotations of ‘Minnesota nice’, mix together and stand up tall against the consistent level of comedy in Fargo. These layers are what I enjoy most about it; it’s an easy film and really offers a laugh-a-minute, but it can also be engaged with on a much deeper level if we’re willing to let it. It provides an equal dose of tragedy and comedy which, when mixed, make the ideal Coen brothers film.

Jack Murphy

Jack Murphy

Jack is an English Literature student in his early Twenties (The Golden Age!) at the University of Leeds. He insists on saying that he’s originally from Slough, Berkshire which is the setting of Ricky Gervais’ comedy series The Office – and not a day goes by that he’s not reminded of that fact… Irrespective of being mocked for it, Jack still is, and will most likely remain, a big Gervais fan.

And he sure knows how to spend his time. Having subscribed to a well known DVD delivery service for the past three years, Jack spends half of his days watching DVDs – and the other half on catch-up websites watching TV programmes.

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