by Steven Warner Film Kicking the Canon

Fargo | Joel & Ethan Coen

March 25, 2020

The brilliance in the work of Joel and Ethan Coen comes from the brothers’ ability to find balance in the seemingly contradictory nature of life. The Coens love contrasts: those of plot and character and those having to do with the visual art of filmmaking itself. In the Coens universe, every “yin” has its “yang.” And no film exemplifies this more than 1996’s Fargo, arguably the brothers first masterpiece — and inarguably the breakthrough that finally revealed the beating heart beneath their brand of quirk. Fargo presents a world that is seemingly paradoxical, where mild-mannered midwesterners are introduced hatching crimes, dropping F-bombs, and outright lying to each other’s faces — all in the name of capitalism. Everything we expect from the average Hollywood thriller is flipped on its head here: The film’s protagonist, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), is a pathetic, wholly unlikable car salesman without a single ounce of goodness in his heart, and the criminals that he hires to kidnap his wife (for a ransom to be paid by his obscenely wealthy father-in-law, who hates him almost as much as we do) are laughably inept. The victim whose misfortune drives the plot is unceremoniously killed off-screen. The police chief sent to investigate, Marge (Francis McDormand), is pregnant and fast-approaching middle age.

With Fargo, for possibly the first — but certainly not the last — time, the Coens achieve what they set out to do from the outset of their career: locate an affecting, emotional pulse amidst broad genre signifiers, and do so without any irony.

The Coens have long flipped the bird at the locus of expectation. And that contradictory attitude makes itself the most known through the way that they plot their films. Halfway through Fargo, a new character, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park), is introduced, and the Coens devote a five-minute scene to his meet-greet with Marge — simply to help the latter come to the conclusion that, yes, people are untrustworthy. Near the end of the film, there’s a three-minute long take that stops the narrative dead in its tracks to allow an unnamed character to help unpack where the criminals might be hiding. And yet, in other moments here, the Coens prefer an economy of storytelling: at one point, the opening of a trunk in the foreground tells us everything we need to know about the disposal of a dead body in the background, while in another scene, the flick of a cigarette coveys so much about a specific character’s truly ruthless nature. As for the characters, they offer a study in contrasts: The two kidnappers, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi), a fast-talking hothead, and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), a measured man of few words, play the big-city criminals to Jerry’s small-town dope in over his head. Marge, meanwhile, is a bastion of goodness in all this sin, one who values love and family above all else, putting her at odds with all three money-grubbing opportunists; she’s also wildly intelligent, while everyone else on screen is both blood simple and, well, simple-simple. Marge’s unassuming nature sometimes gets her into trouble (such as with the aforementioned Mike Yanagita), but her desire to give people the benefit of the doubt is moving, especially as it becomes clear that the only person she can truly trust is her husband (John Carroll Lynch), a pessimist whose best self is brought out by Marge’s optimism.

In Marge and her husband’s relationship, we find the thing that has always set the Coens’ work apart from indie filmmaker peers: a willingness to embrace the commonality that exists in opposing (or at least very different) forces. The brothers’ films are of course heavily influenced by classic film noir and screwball comedies, two seeming opposites inside which the Coens locate a shared sense of sadness. Fargo is both ridiculously hilarious and profoundly tragic, its protagonist a man so pitiful that you can’t help but laugh as what he thinks are carefully thought-out plans all spin wildly out of control. The only difference between our protagonist and the two ‘professional’ convicts he hires to help him is a thin veneer of politesse. All three are out for themselves, innocent lives be damned. Marge is equally driven in her own way, but she understands the bigger picture, as made evident in her speech at the end: “There’s more to life than a little bit of money. Don’t you know that? And here we are, and it’s a beautiful day.” In a move of sheer brilliance, Jerry’s takedown at an out-of-state motel, where he is pushed onto a bed by authorities and handcuffed, abruptly cuts, mid-scream, as we shift to Marge getting into her own bed, Norm silently waiting for her so he can tell her about his own big day. With Fargo, for possibly the first — but certainly not the last — time, the Coens achieve what they set out to do from the outset of their career: locate an affecting, emotional pulse amidst broad genre signifiers, and do so without any irony. Because while Fargo offers many pleasures, from the career-best work of its entire cast — seriously, McDormand’s physical acting during her conversation with Mike Yanagita should be studied by every aspiring thespian — to the regional color added by all the “Yeah”s’ and “You betcha”s, it’s the emotional depth and dimensionalism that’s most cherished — that the viewer carries with them long after, and that makes returning to this film such a treat. Bonus points for the “a true story” title-card; damn, these guys are good.


Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.

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