AFI Countdown Challenge #84: Fargo

I remember thinking that, when Fargo first came out, that it wasn’t the best movie the Coen Brothers had made and that their other work deserved more praise than Fargo got.  Keep in mind that at that point, my only exposure to the Coens was Raising Arizona (which is still a big personal favorite) and Barton Fink.

I’ve since rethought my views on Fargo because I maybe didn’t quite “get” it the way I did the other two.  Fargo is doing something here that isn’t quite so obvious on the surface.

I think the key to getting Fargo comes at the end of the movie.  Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) has just successfully arrested the surviving member of the two crooks and is driving him back to Brainerd, the small town she works in as sheriff.  She manages to take the guy down without too much trouble, a nice thing since she is seven months pregnant at the time of the arrest and was alone, and by this point the man sitting behind her is responsible for the deaths of five people (with two more dead thanks to his partner).  And Marge’s reaction to the whole thing is, well, disappointment.  She’s not angry or pumped on solving the case or anything.  She’s just disappointed in what happened over what she terms “a little bit of money”.

“All that for a little bit of money,” is, in my mind, the key to really getting the greater themes to Fargo.  True, the crime story takes place front and center, but the thing that kicks off the whole mess is Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) wants more money.  He seems to have tried some kind of scam involving the car lot he works at (owned by his father-in-law) and a large loan he can’t pay back.  He needs some money fast.  Why does he do any of this?  He has what seems to be a decent job, a loving wife and son, a decent-sized house, and a lot of other things that people might be satisfied to have.  He just wants more.

That’s also, ultimately, what goes wrong between the two criminals he hires to fake kidnap his wife to hold for ransom.  The two are motormouth Carl (Steve Buscemi) and the largely silent, much more violent Gaear (Peter Stormare).  Jerry lied about the amount of money the ransom was asking for, and when Carl discovers the full amount, he tries to hide the fact from the hulking Gaear.  Then Gaear demands half the amount of the car Jerry gave them, and when Carl refuses, well, it’s woodchipper time.

Pictured: not exactly a pair of criminal masterminds.

And that whole thing goes wrong mostly because Jerry is such an unlikable weasel he can’t convince his wealthy father-in-law to let him make the drop so he can hide the extra cash from Carl.  Having the more brash and formidable Wade make the drop leads to two more deaths and Carl getting shot with a grazing bullet to the face.  Given how often Buscemi’s character is referred to as “funny looking,” it might not be much of an improvement.

In fact, it may be something of a contest to see who the movie craps on more as a pathetic loser during the course of the film:  Carl or Jerry.  Jerry, played brilliantly by Macy, would be my pick as he both wants to take more from life than he has, and simultaneously is pushed around by everyone he meets.  When an angry customer he’s scammed calls him a liar, he can only look down meekly.  He backs away from Wade, backs away from any confrontation that seems to be getting away from him (which would be all of them), and his pathetic arrest at the end of the movie as he tries to scramble out a motel window in his underwear isn’t exactly a criminal mastermind being brought down.  Jerry, pointedly, asks his wealthy father-in-law early in the movie what would happen if the worst happened to the older man, and Wade’s reply is that his daughter and grandson never have to worry about anything.  Jerry is pointedly not listed there.  Life craps on the guy, and though he isn’t exactly undeserving, Macy’s performance does allow the viewer to feel at least a little sympathy for the guy whose picture is probably in the dictionary next to the definition of “loser”.

As for Carl, even before he gets shot or shoved in the woodchipper, he’s hardly having an easy time of it.  He gets slapped around, insulted, and a pathetic attempt to bribe a traffic cop only leads to Gaear’s first three murders.  If there’s a difference between Carl and Jerry, it’s that Carl doesn’t like it when he’s pushed around enough to try and push back.  True, he isn’t very good at it, and that’s a big reason why he ends up dead after telling off the silent psychopath that is his partner.  Considering Gaear seems content to watch poor reception off a TV antenna, he clearly isn’t someone you should mess with, and this is after he’s murdered three people.  These are people who just want more.

But then there’s Marge.

Marge isn’t flashy.  She and her husband Norm live a comfortable existence, but are hardly wealthy.  The film ends with Marge pointing out that even if Norm didn’t win a stamp contest to get a painting of his on the new stamps, getting on the three cent stamp is a much better accomplishment because those get used more often whenever the price of stamps inevitably goes up.  Norm accepts this and the two settle down to get some sleep.  The idea of wanting more than what she has seems so foreign to Marge, including in a seemingly odd scene where she has lunch with a former classmate.  The man in question claims his wife, another classmate, died and he’s lonely after what seems to be an odd attempt to get sympathy from a classmate he used to have a crush on.  It doesn’t exactly work, and Marge later learns that not only is the woman not dead, she and the man she had lunch with never married.

That lack of flashiness is evident in how Marge and her department solve the crime.  Jerry, Carl, and Gaear are hardly criminal masterminds, as noted, but Marge just methodically does her job, chatting with witnesses and suspects in a friendly manner, getting just enough information to keep things going while also spooking criminal-types, and she isn’t even being mean about anything.  She’s just asking questions in a friendly manner.  It actually reminds me a little of the TV series Columbo, where the title detective would just keep asking questions, pretending to be dumb, before the high and mighty suspect the audience already knows did the crime, slips up and gets nabbed.  Marge doesn’t pretend to be dumb.  She doesn’t pretend to be anything.  She really is that nice.  And, in the end, she probably really is more disappointed in Gaear than anything else.  And I doubt she’d change her mind if she knew the real ransom, lost in the snow somewhere, was for a million dollars.

Fargo has a unique feel, one the Coens would master as their filmography grew and this movie even spawned a pretty darn good TV anthology series.  The two brothers are probably among the biggest talents working in Hollywood today, able to put together a good screwball or dark comedy or something like this, a noir crime story set in the desolate Midwest, where ice, snow, and sky seem to be the only view worth mentioning for half the movie.  This isn’t a city-based crime story, despite the title.  It isn’t based on a true story as the opening crawl claims.  It’s an announcement for a major talent, two brothers who refined their gifts with earlier films and are now ready to start making some major artistic and cinematic statements.  Their first few films were good.  Their output going forward will be even better.

NEXT UP:  We’re skipping back to 1986, when Oliver Stone made it fashionable to talk about Vietnam in the movies again with Platoon.

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