Celebrating one of the most profoundly beautiful experiences cinema has to offer
In many ways Fargo is the star of Fargo.
So detached from the savagery of modern life are its people that their salt-of-the-earth simplicity comes across as quite bizarre, and when contrasted with the stark and often brutal violence of the movie’s outsiders we are plunged into the kind of prodigious juxtapose that has made the Coen brothers so uniquely prominent as both writers and directors.
Fargo is the perfect movie. It may be contested as the greatest movie of the 90s because opinions are subjective, but it would be difficult beyond nitpicking to find many flaws. As well as being funny and eccentric and profoundly dysfunctional, it is a picture of quite astonishing beauty, the shocks and the violence soothed by a brooding delicacy which pins its desolate, snowy landscapes like a butterfly.
The movie begins with a simple plan—an act of small town treachery that extends an arm to true evil and is inevitably bitten. From there we are sent spiralling through an odyssey of excruciating convolution. Every quick-fix band aid the movie’s characters attempt to apply nicks another slow-spilling artery. Every shifty manoeuvre drags another innocent into the fold. The man responsible for the madness, Jerry Lundegarrd, is a creaking schmuck ducking in and out of hibernation like a confused hamster with a cheek full of despair, and every icky, self-serving deviation spells doom for one more vacuous bystander. Tragedy stalks Fargo’s community like a devil who has stumbled upon a party, deigning to attend and becoming slightly more amused with every blithely consumed nibble.
The people of Fargo are acutely unprepared for the events that take place, and as a consequence hardly register them. When three dead bodies turn up following a brutal roadside murder, the local authorities approach the crime scene with a sleepy pragmatism as routine as ordering your morning coffee. Quizzed about the appearance of the possible perpetrators, helpful residents are only too happy to oblige but are ultimately unable to offer little more than, ‘He was kinda funny lookin’.’ When Mrs Lundegaard spots her oblivious kidnapper peering through the patio in a balaclava, she is so perplexed by what is happening she simply continues to knit, only sparked into action by the sobering reality of shattered glass.
Carl Showalter – Would it… kill you to say something? “No.” That’s the first thing you’ve said in the last four hours. That’s a… that’s fountain of conversation, man. That’s a geyser. I mean, whoa daddy! Stand back, man. Shit. I’m sitting here driving. Doing all the driving, man. The whole fucking way from Brainard driving. Just trying to… chat, you know. Keep our spirits up, fight the boredom of the road, and you can’t say one fucking thing just in the way of conversation. Oh fuck it. I don’t have to talk to you either, man. See how you like it. Just total fucking silence. Two can play at that game, smart guy. We’ll just see how you like it. Total silence.
Another prominent comic element exists in the dynamic of our kidnappers, who in many ways are the original odd couple. Carl Showalter (Buscemi) is the hapless, talkative cretin whose bark is infinitely louder than his bite. Meanwhile, his dead-eyed accomplice sits in absolute silence for hours on end, only ever pausing to order pancakes with a curtness that cuts to the very centre of his associate’s soft underbelly. Carl is a small-time con-artist looking to make a quick buck and get out clean. His partner Gaear, played by an excruciatingly remorseless Peter Stormare, is prone to the kind of inhuman violence that can decimate communities irrevocably.
Fargo is a wonderful example of just how effective explicit violence can be when used correctly. It is never wasted or needless; it is sparse and unsettling and always essential to events. When Gaear takes the initiative and puts a bullet in a patrolman’s head, our surprise is mirrored by the blood-splattered face of his partner, and we know that events are far more serious than we may have first assumed. When Showalter argues with a parking attendant over the cost of his momentary visit, we empathise with his gripe against bureaucracy, and when in a later scene a heavily bleeding Showalter finds himself once again in the same predicament, we can even sympathise on some deeply macabre level when he brutally murders the smiling attendant, an act that, crucially, we do not see him commit. Unlike so many modern movies designed in the same vein, the violence is not a superfluous embellishment, it is a constructive device which adds richness to the plot and its characters. Instead of being cynical and malicious, it is humorous and very much relatable.
The movie benefits from two extraordinary central performances. The first of those is William H. Macy as unlikely antagonist Lundegaard, a stammering weasel whose twisted plan offends even the heartless Gaear. Jerry is a slippery car salesman whose pathetic attempts at professional deception alienate him from every plainspoken native who happens to wander onto his lot, and his debt-ridden existence — never explained in any detail — creaks from every awkward crevice.
Jerry doesn’t realise the true consequences of his deed, nor does he contemplate the feelings of his young son when he decides to have his wife kidnapped, and it takes the outward concerns of his father-in-law’s financial adviser for the reality to truly sink in. Even then, Jerry is too spineless to face the repercussions of his duplicitous blunder, and as his wife is stumbling through a snow-plunged wilderness that will prove her final resting place, Jerry is returning from the scene of her murdered father, staring into the abyss as he kicks off his boots and retires to an empty bed. Jerry may not have hurt anyone directly, but it is because of him that a whole series of atrocities are put into motion.
The second standout performance is that of local sheriff Marge Gunderson, who in spite of her position of authority is happy to be referred to as simply Margie, a show of humility which epitomizes her character. Marge is played by Coen brothers mainstay Frances McDormand, who delivers a quite astonishing performance of bright-eyed understatement. Marge is heavily pregnant and living a life of domestic simplicity when the weight of a gruesome triple homicide is suddenly thrust upon her shoulders, but she manages to assume the burden without a stumble. She answers early morning calls of murder and mayhem with an unflinching civility, and is more perturbed by her morning sickness than the three dead bodies that awaken her from Fargo’s slumberous complacency.
Marge Gunderson [to Gaear] – So, that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.
Marge approaches life with a quiet pragmatism, and her aspirations stretch no further than watching television in bed with her husband. When her colleague feels the sting of a professional oversight, she challenges his police work duly but lightens his burden by cracking a joke which diffuses the situation and saves him from occupational ignominy. When a nutcase former classmate contacts her out of the blue and bombards her with lies and physical advances, she handles the situation with a grace and sagacity that is both wholesome and endearing. For a person whose life is mired in murder, she has the curious ability to see the good in everyone.
Unluckily for Jerry Lundegaard and his wanton conspirators, she is also smart as a whip, and in spite of the laxness of her coworkers she is soon on the punitive trail, tracking a series of increasingly desperate incidents with a frankness that adds balance and perspective to the bizarre and bloody deterioration of events. While Lundegaard kicks and squirms his way to jail and Gaear feeds his partner’s corpse to a wood chipper, Marge simply follows procedure and routinely escorts our dead-eyed killer to justice. Unflinching in his presence, a teary Marge tries to understand the actions of the maniac caged in the backseat. ‘And for what?’ she asks. ‘For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day.’
It is the wisdom of her simplicity that makes Marge such an endearing hero. It also qualifies Fargo as one of the most profoundly beautiful experiences cinema has to offer.