not in our stars, but in ourselves
As you know if you’ve been following for a while, I am a big fan of the TV series Fargo. That is, in no small part, because I am a big fan of the movie Fargo. This isn’t, therefore, a typical “Catching Up With the Coens” entry: I’ve seen the movie many times before, don’t worry, don’t worry. However, I’ve yet to re-watch the movie since watching the first two seasons of the show – and it’s remarkable how Noah Hawley took the best parts (i.e., every part) of the film and extended them, theme-and-variations style. Someday, maybe I’ll do what everyone else has done, and tease out all those variations on the main themes, but for now: the film itself.
The opening credits inform us that the events depicted herein all took place in Minnesota in 1987; out of respect for the dead, names have been changed. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is the executive sales manager at a car dealership run by his father-in-law. Despite his wife’s family wealth, he is deeply in debt, and desperate to come up with some cash. He therefore concocts a plan – harebrained as it is – for his wife to be kidnapped, for the kidnappers to collect a hefty ransom, and for Jerry to keep the bulk of the money. One of the mechanics at the dealership, Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis), puts Jerry in touch with a crook to do the deed: Gaer Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), who comes with a loquacious partner, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi). Gaer and Carl successfully kidnap Jerry’s wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd). That’s about all they manage to do successfully, however: while traveling from the Lundegaards’ home to the lakeside cabin where they intend to keep Jean until her rich father pays a ransom, they get stopped by a state trooper; Gaer kills the trooper; a passing couple sees Carl struggling to dispose of the body; and Gaer kills the couple. This gets Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), chief of the Brainerd Police Department, involved. Marge is natural police, and she’s quite capable of getting to the bottom of the “malfeasance” along the side of the road – albeit not before quite a few more bodies stack up.
It’s the stereotypically convoluted noir plot – but this film is as blindingly white as can be. There’s something about the brief amounts of daylight, the endless swaths of white plains, the grey skies and the driving snow, that lends some credence to the opening credits’ claims that this is all true. Not that it’s true in the sense of being factually correct, obviously; it feels true because there’s not even a hint that any of this was filmed on a Hollywood backlot. And the performances, too, are all terribly real. The allegation that the Coens don’t like their characters is pretty impossible to prove, because they all ache with humanity – even (or especially) when those humans are irretrievable fuck-ups. There’s usually a sense of sympathy, a sense that – had they made better decisions – they would have deserved better endings. There’s a sense that all this violence and bloodshed is horrible. None of it is cool or fun or amusing, as in Tarantino: it’s sad, miserable, even heartbreaking at points. The TV show, by the way, also got that right. In a world of de-sensitization to violence, of people (theoretically) reenacting the kinds of easy and/or bloodless crimes they see in the media, there’s something refreshing about seeing filmmakers who understand the enormity of destroying a life in cold blood. Where was I? Oh, right. The Coens do like these people, and they care when they mow each other down. In some twisted way, they’re among the most ethical filmmakers working in mainstream cinema.
They’re also tremendously funny – and that’s all part of that humanity. Of course. None of this is news. Re-watching it after the usually bone-dry humor of the TV series, I remembered just how much I enjoy the absurdist humor that the brothers Coen inject into their ostensibly serious movies. (Obviously, movies like The Big Lebowski are more clearly comedic than anything else, and those are about as funny as anything out there.) There’s something so real about Jean’s mad dash after she’s released from the infamous tan Ciera, hooded with her hands tied, trying to listen for signs of where to run – all while Carl laughs his head off. There’s something hysterical (in a number of ways) about Jerry’s freak-outs – trashing his office, stomping his feet – when the kidnapping plot takes turns he doesn’t want it to. And there’s something terribly funny and sad and true about Marge’s high school classmate, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park), who’s carried a torch for her all these years and who tries to seduce her over lunch at the Radisson, allowing his decades of unrequited passion to explode in the classic pick-up line, “I ALWAYS LIKED YOU SO MUCH!”
Anyway, what more is there to say? In some ways, it’s hard to separate Fargo the film from Fargo the TV show, despite the fact that they have (mostly) different aims and intentions. The show has expanded the universe of the film far beyond its original, intentionally limited radius – all the way to outer space, in fact. The film, however, stands perfectly well on its own: a carefully considered, carefully observed portrait of the darker sides of “Minnesota nice,” its rules and its limits and its strange expression of what humans can and will do to each other.
P.S. One of these days, I will get around to seeing Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. Unlike Fargo, it really is based somewhat in something that actually happened: a young Japanese woman who traveled to Minnesota in 2001 and froze to death, perhaps to commit suicide or perhaps to search for the treasure that Carl had buried alongside the highway. (That treasure, complete with ice scraper landmark, makes its way into the first season of Fargo the show, in case you didn’t quite catch it at the time.) Anyway, both Kumiko and season 2 of the show use this song, and it is a bop.