Noel: Fargo is a crime procedural, but it’s also a comedy, and an inquiry into values—and I think sometimes people get so wrapped up in the “comedy” part that they miss the “values” part. I want to be clear up front: I think Fargo is very funny, and make no apologies for that. Yes, the Coen brothers hold an extra beat on their Minnesota characters as they nod or chew, and yes, they clearly mean the audience to laugh at the aggressively pleasant, nasal accents. It’s hard to argue that this isn’t making fun of Midwesterners. The Coens are partially establishing their milieu when they pan their camera across a smorgasbord steam table, or when they punctuate every line of dialogue with a “heck,” “geez,” or “yah,” but they’re also exaggerating this world a little in a bratty way, because it amuses them to do so. And yet they’re hardly coming at this as outsiders. The Coens grew up in Minnesota, and have said Fargo was partly inspired by dealing with a lot of “Minnesota nice” while raising money for Blood Simple early in their careers. They’re trying to get at something specific about this region of the country and its inhabitants. They want to show how the affable surface can mask desperation, cruelty, and ruthlessness.
Or at least sometimes it can. Often, the affability is sincere. Whenever I read someone saying Fargo is mean-spirited, I think of Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) at the end of the film tsk-tsk-ing that “it’s a beautiful day,” and that there’s more to life than “a bit of money.” Or her husband leaning in to give her a kiss and her saying, “Ah, Norm, you got Arby’s all over me.” The Coens balance the pathetic weaseliness of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy)—who regularly falls back on phony graciousness—with the good hearts of Marge and Norm (John Carroll Lynch), and the many law-enforcement officers and helpful, hard-working citizens who make sure justice is done. Fargo’s structure is such that Marge doesn’t even appear until 32 minutes into the movie. But the film ends with her for a reason: She understands if you have a home, a job, someone to love, and a good attitude, you’re “doin’ okay.”
Nathan: When wondering whether a depiction of a particular region, subculture, or group is excessively sour or mocking, I ask, “Is it mean-spirited?” and “Is it inaccurate?” Sure, Fargo exaggerates its characters’ pleasantness and Midwesternness for comic effect, and some of the laughs it scores at their expense can be pointed. But on a fundamental level, I don’t think the film is particularly mean-spirited. And I’ve lived in the Midwest my entire life; Fargo feels incredibly accurate, both in the particulars and in the grand scope. As you say, Noel, Midwestern niceness can be deceptive—a form of fiction, or a means of avoiding the unpleasantness that constitutes so much of the world. If the Coens only highlighted the pleasant parts of the Midwestern disposition, that would be condescending in its own right. Smartasses they might be, but they respect the Midwest enough to chronicle it in all its niceness and its complexity.
Tasha: The Minnesota attitudes and accents in Fargo seem exaggerated and comic, but there’s so much sentimentality about Midwestern life in the film as well. One of my favorite sequences in the film is Marge and Norm’s introduction: They’re asleep in bed when she gets the middle-of-the-night call to come investigate the murdered cop. Everything about their introduction underlines their salt-of-the-earth characters: their unfussy, beige bedroom with its clutter and sorta-matching pressboard furniture. Marge’s understated “Aw, geez” reaction, and the dutiful, plodding way she heads out to work, even though she’s heavily pregnant, and it’s freezing and still dark out. Norm’s loving insistence on getting up and making breakfast for her, even when she gives him permission to sleep in—and her tiny, fond smile in reaction. I’m not sure how people can look at scenes like this and think the characters are being reviled and dismissed, unless they’re bringing their own extremely specific values to the table—values that emphasize spartan home decor over homeyness and comfort, and lean, efficient, emotionless action-hero behavior over vulnerability and affection. Generally, when people claim the Coens are making fun of the rubes, what I hear is, “The Coens don’t pare their characters down into familiar, slick, personality-free movie stereotypes.” As goofy as all the “Yah, geez” business can sound to ears more accustomed to clipped coastal voices, the Coens’ admiration of Marge and Norm in that introductory scene is patently clear.
Keith: That said, it isn’t all affection. That long trip down the buffet reminded me of every trip to MCL Cafeterias I took as a kid, not realizing food gets so much better. Poor, weird Mike Yanagita has that line: “Ya know, it’s the Radisson, so it’s pretty good.” In some respects, life can be wonderful in Fargo’s world. But in others, the ceiling stops at “Ya know, pretty good.”
Matt: It could also be as simple as the Coens telling a dark story about kidnapping and violence, and finding it funny to juxtapose its extremely bloody imagery with extremely polite, chipper people. It strikes me as not about laughing at the Midwesterners, so much as reveling in that contrast, and marveling at the full scope of human existence, from extreme cruelty to extreme kindness.
Scott: Fargo has always prompted this debate about the Coens’ attitude toward Midwesterners, and it has to be addressed, but my instinct these days is to groan and roll my eyes before getting into the fray. It comes up every time Alexander Payne makes a movie, too, and any time filmmakers pierce the parchment-thin skins of us Flyover Country rubes. Yes, the Coens are having a laugh at Minnesota accents and rituals. But that doesn’t prevent the film from having a rich, complicated relationship with the setting. Talk about the Coens’ contempt for Midwesterners tends to shut down conversation about their point of view, which is much more nuanced than detractors claim.
Nathan: Definitely. The glib, cynical culture-clash comedy is right there in the phrase “Minnesota nice,” with its juxtaposition of Midwestern pleasantness and Miami Vice seediness. But we wouldn’t still be talking about this film if the Coen brothers’ take on the material didn’t go so much deeper and find the wonderful humanity and loveliness in characters who, in lesser hands, could easily have been shrill caricatures. The laughter of Fargo is deeper and more rewarding because the film allows us to know these people on such a deep, profound level.
Nathan: Fargo is a fascinating exploration of masculinity in conflict, as epitomized by Jerry Lundegaard, who sets the whole sordid chain of events into action while attempting to get his hands on money he’s convinced will establish him as his own man, not just the lily-livered schmuck married to the boss’ daughter. Jerry desperately craves respect, but his father-in-law Wade (Harve Presnell) and Wade’s business partner casually verbally castrate him at every turn, communicating in a million ways that they consider him a pathetic little man, a useful idiot at best. Wade is the type to insist on delivering the ransom money himself, and he dies as a result—really, just to make a point. The fucked-up thing: I suspect Wade might have felt it was worth it, that losing his own life was an acceptable price to pay to emasculate his stupid hump of a son-in-law one last time. Ah, but there are so many other fascinating explorations of masculinity on display besides Jerry’s, from the killers’ Neanderthal debauchery to Norm’s gentleness. Fargo contains multitudes just in its depiction of the way men assert their manliness, and the complications that ensue when brittle male egos collide, sometimes comically, sometimes violently, and sometimes both.
Keith: I think you might be a little hard on poor Wade. Sure, he’s an emasculating bully to Jerry, but who wouldn’t be? And he’s a man interested in getting things done, one who’ll go to any end, no matter how stupid, to protect his daughter. When Wade says Jerry’s wife and son need never worry about being supported—pointedly leaving Jerry out—that’s just him expressing his code. And, yeah, maybe pointing out in the process that Jerry isn’t up to the task himself. One of the film’s funniest scenes is the one where Jerry encounters a man even more emasculated than he is, the character billed only as “Irate Customer” who doesn’t want that Trucoat, and gets so upset that he curses, breaking the code of Minnesota Nice. Without any remorse, Jerry has backed him into a corner and wheedled an extra $400 out of him, and they both know it. Finally, someone who makes Jerry feel like a big man.
Noel: Well, which came first: Jerry’s timidity, or Wade’s disdain? In just about every way, Jerry seems like a beaten man, even in the film’s first scene, when he arrives at his meeting with the kidnappers an hour late (unintentionally) and $40,000 short (very much intentionally). It probably takes all of 15 seconds for these crooks to realize that Jerry is a pushover, and that they’re going to be the ones running this deal. But was Jerry always this way? His wife seems like a kind woman, not the least bit shrewish, and while his son is defiant, it seems like normal teenage independence, not malice. So that leaves Wade: gruff, opinionated, and unwilling to let Jerry to be in charge of anything. It could be that Jerry was always a putz—he’s barely in control of his own car dealership, after all— but when his voice squeaks as he’s telling Marge, “I’m the executive sales manager!” he sounds like someone who’s had all the assertiveness squeezed out of him.
Scott: The depths of Jerry’s ineffectuality—and the greater depths of his ineptitude in asserting himself through a criminal scheme—are truly staggering, but that instinct to stake his claim, even to have something as feeble as a parking lot to call his own, is resonant. Even if Wade were a less disdainful benefactor, Jerry would still have to live with the fact that “Jean and Scotty never have to worry,” because someone else can provide for them. But of course, Jerry immediately cedes control over the operation that’s supposed to give him a piece of the action. As Noel says, the kidnappers size up Jerry right quick, and the audience discovers later that his part of the exchange, the car that disappeared from the lot, was never going to work. The comic low point for me comes when Jerry visits Scotty in his room to reassure him about his mother’s abduction—and let’s pour one out for poor Scotty, who loses his entire family in this—and says, “We gotta play ball with these guys. You ask Stan Grossman, he’ll tell you the same thing.” Dad can’t even trust his own authority.
Nathan: Jerry Lundegaard is a real Willy Loman type, and there’s tremendous pathos in his desperate attempts to carve out a tiny little portion of the universe for himself and failing miserably at every turn. What makes Wade’s treatment of Jerry so brutal and devastating is how matter-of-fact and casual it is. Wade has destroyed Jerry’s self-confidence to the point where he no longer even needs to explicitly state his low opinion of Jerry; instead, everyone just assumes that in important matters, Jerry will sheepishly step aside and let a real man handle things. Wade pays a terrible price for his hubris, but his low opinion of Jerry seems eminently justifiable.
Tasha: We haven’t even touched on masculinity in the kidnappers themselves: Carl (Steve Buscemi) plays the tough, in-command guy from that opening scene, putting Jerry in his place by constantly cutting him off and putting him down. He clearly sees himself as the big man of the show, with Gaear (Peter Stormare) as his dumb flunky, Wade as a designated victim, and Jerry as a barely tolerable employer. Bullying Jerry works fine, but bullying Wade gets Carl shot in the face, and bullying Gaear gets him killed and wood-chippered. In the end, Jerry and Carl both try to bring off their masculinity via plenty of big talk, but Wade and Gaear’s simple, direct action goes a lot further. But the Coens lampoon all the masculinity in this film: For all Wade’s contempt and belittling of what he sees as lesser men, he still ends up dead in the snow, while Gaear gets bitten by a housewife and shot, arrested, and scolded by a pregnant lady. Ultimately, all the men in this film are poseurs in various ways—except maybe Norm, who expresses his masculinity by defiantly cooking eggs for his wife so she can go off to work well-fed. As a result, he’s the one who winds up happy, free, and alive.
THE MIKE YANAGITA MYSTERY
Keith: Joel and Ethan Coen have talked about letting the story take them where they will when writing screenplays, but Fargo is a pretty tightly constructed film. (And, really, even the Coens’ more ramshackle films feel pretty thoughtfully put together.) Yet there’s one scene that doesn’t seem to serve the plot: Marge’s awkward reunion with her old high-school acquaintance Mike Yanagita (Steve Park). In fact, Googling the name “Mike Yanagita” leads to results like “What significance does Mike Yanagita have in Fargo?” and “Can anyone explain the significance of the Mike Yanagita scene in Fargo?” I haven’t visited those pages and I’m not sure what conclusions they draw, but the scene used to puzzle me too. Then it hit me that the scene doesn’t serve the mystery at all, but it does serve a parallel story, in which Marge faces an enormous life change with the arrival of her child, and questions whether she’s made the right decisions.
Marge is a great detective: fast, instinctive, and canny. She uses the codes of Minnesota nice to cut through Jerry’s defenses, and follows clues that others miss. So what’s she doing in small-town Brainerd, Minnesota? In some respects, settling. Fargo is above all a story of greed and discontent, a film filled with characters who always want more than they have, and will do what it takes to get it. Marge isn’t one of those people, but that doesn’t mean she’s immune to the same instincts. Note this: She never tells her husband she’s meeting Mike. Note, too: She makes herself up for their meeting, checking her hair as she walks in the door, and looking nervous in a way she never does when interviewing suspects or chasing down bad guys. I’m not suggesting she enters the restaurant prepared to embark on a torrid affair with Mike, but she at least wants to keep the meeting to herself, maybe just to contemplate paths not taken while reconnecting with someone who left Brainerd for the (relatively) big city.
To me, the cracks in Marge’s saintliness make Fargo a richer movie. She’s been touched by the urge to want what she doesn’t have, which makes her “…and it’s a beautiful day” speech more than a lecture she delivers to a bad guy: It’s something she’s telling herself. Ditto the final moments when she tells her husband, almost as if remembering it, “We’re doin’ pretty good” as they consider what lies ahead in just two months. Fargo is a crime story, but there’s another, more personal story playing out in the background.
Noel: I think that’s a great read. It’s also a key scene for two other, interrelated reasons. The way Mike’s unthreatening tone conceals his deeper lust fits in with Fargo’s larger themes, suggesting that something shady’s going on beneath Minnesota’s icy-white surfaces. And plot-wise, when Marge hears from her friend that Mike’s lying about his “wife” Linda dying, it reminds her not to take what people say at face value. Next thing you know, she’s back talking to Jerry again.
Scott: Keith, you’ve blown me away. Because Marge’s encounter with Mike goes so wrong so quickly—between her timidity and his overeagerness, it’s a disaster even before he tries to squeeze into the booth next to her—and because his story about losing his wife is later revealed as fiction, it never occurred to me that Marge was motivated by anything other than begrudgingly meeting up with an old acquaintance while she was in the city. But of course you’re completely right, Keith, and the film is indeed stronger for it, much as I find the bookending scenes of Marge and Norm to be such a sweet vision of domestication. I also admire the Coens for sticking the Mike Yanagita subplot into the narrative so conspicuously; they’re the only scenes that don’t move the plot forward, so we get to ponder why they’re there at all.
Nathan: As we’ve discussed, Fargo is about people bending, contorting, or just plain ignoring the rules in a desperate bid to get more than what they’re legally or morally entitled to. Mike’s behavior provides a particularly tragicomic variation on that theme. His motivation isn’t criminal or financial, so much as romantic and emotional: He clearly has romantic feelings toward Marge, but he also doesn’t want her to think he’s the loser he clearly thinks he is. So Mike concocts a fiction to make himself seem more impressive. He’s certainly isn’t the only one in the film doing so.
Matt: I’ve always thought the key to the Mike Yanagita scene is, as Noel and Nathan said, the way his lies echo Jerry’s, reinforcing Fargo’s theme of people putting up false faces to convince others they’re doing just fine. I love Keith’s new reading, particularly because it seems to enhance this interpretation by suggesting that Marge might be doing the same thing as well; putting on her makeup, doing her hair, creating her own image of success and happiness that might not be entirely true.
CRIME AND COMEDY
Tasha: Fargo is extremely grim: Gaear murders and mulches his partner in crime, and Jerry’s innocent wife Jean is terrorized and killed because her ineffectual, cowardly husband sees her as leverage. For me, there’s no grimmer moment in the film than the one where the camera pans down to Jean Lundegaard’s bloodied corpse, and it becomes clear that Gaear killed her casually, offscreen, and without comment or regret. So much effort is still being expended to ransom her or find her, but it’s already too late. For me, the film deflates in that moment. And yet the reveal is still bookended with humorous shots of her goofy-looking, mouth-breathing murderer gasping over the shenanigans on a soap opera.
That mixture of bleak comedy and extreme violence is typical Coen brothers, and it gives the entire film its shape. Consider the kidnapping scene, where Gaear and Carl kidnap Jean from her home. It’s a frightening scenario—two armed, masked men proving their victim isn’t even safe in her own home in broad daylight—but the way she resists turns the sequence into a farce. An unkempt, schlumpy woman in pink slippers and shapeless pink sweatpants completely baffles two career criminals by biting and kicking at them, then running away. The sequence that follows plays like a Saturday Night Live parody of The Shining, with the hysterical woman in the bathroom trying to get out the tiny window as the killer breaks through the door—except that where Jack in The Shining is like an unstoppable force of nature, Gaear and Carl have trouble getting through a pasteboard-thin door. It’s such a subtle bit of directing, but there’s a moment just before they come through where the Coens build up the tension, then deliberately undercut it by overextending the process, adding subtle fumbling noises and a lighter music cue. When Gaear does make it into the bathroom, the moment with the shower curtain feels like a Psycho parody, seen from the killer’s perspective. It’s hard to reconcile the drama of Jean’s obvious terror in the bathroom with the comedy of her flailing blindly through the house, but that’s one of the things the Coens do best: finding a way for slapstick and sickening sequences to complement each other instead of clash. I think the humor curdles with Jean’s death, but the back-and-forth between extremes does lead to an unpredictable tone where the tension comes not from the moment, but from the feeling that absolutely anything could happen. The stakes are high for a comedy, but the narrative is unpredictable for a drama.
Nathan: Fargo is full of dark running jokes, like having Jean continually pop up and attempt to escape, despite being tied up, like a deranged variation on the Energizer Bunny. The image of Jean tied up is so preposterous, it even cracks up the kidnappers, but it’s also horrifying, because it asserts yet again that this innocent woman who has done nothing wrong is in a state of extreme, constant peril.
Scott: Jean’s odyssey really is as dark as Fargo gets, and as discomforting, too, in its mix of comedy and pathos. For the Coens to find humor in her scampering around blindly on two different occasions, running for her life, turns us into Carl, chuckling along as this poor woman tumbles down the stairs or falls in the snow. Then there’s the identifiable tragicomedy of Jerry retreating to his car after the parking-lot deal goes south, only to be dealt the additional burden of scraping the ice off his car. Yet there are other occasions when Fargo is just flat-out funny: the one-sided conversations between the belligerent Carl and the monosyllabic Gaear (“I don’t have to talk either, man. See how you like it. Just total fuckin’ silence!”), the banter between Marge and her dim partner Lou (“Say, Lou, didya hear the one about the guy who couldn’t afford personalized plates, so he went and changed his name to J3L2404?” “Yah, that’s a good one.”), and Carl’s assessment of the night’s entertainment. (“You know, Jose Feliciano, you got no complaints.”) Given that Tasha calls this movie “extremely grim,” I feel a little guilty finding it as much fun as I do.
Tasha: I certainly don’t think you should feel guilty—viewers are meant to laugh. While it amazes me how brutal Fargo gets, that surprise is solely because it’s so over-the-top absurdist in other parts. I think when the Coens saw a news story about a killer wood-chippering his victim—the loose inspiration for the film, though the details are radically different—they felt the whole idea was so horrible, yet so ridiculous, that it could only be played as bleak comedy or grotesque melodrama. No wonder they prefer the former. It seems significant that while Fargo feels like a dark comedy, it doesn’t have jokes: The humor is in the performances, the direction, and the sheer contrast between the extremity of the violence and the fake smiles painted on Frances McDormand and William H. Macy. The moment where Jerry is arrested at the end of the film—trying to escape out a window in winter in his underwear while yelling “Be with you in just a minute!” through the door at the cops—is a prime example of something that wouldn’t look funny on the page, but comes across as laughable because it’s played for high absurdity.
Noel: The first time I saw Fargo, the crowd I saw it with—mostly young dudes in the college town I was living in at the time—laughed so hard at Jean falling down in the kidnapping scene that it threw me out of the movie for a few minutes. On subsequent viewings, I’ve been way more impressed with how the Coens shift so easily from pitch-black comedy to moves a master horror director would envy. And that’s true throughout. When Wade gets shot, for example, the little tuft of down that pops out of his winter coat is simultaneously funny, sad, and kind of beautiful.
Matt: Tasha’s comparisons to Psycho are really interesting. With Psycho, Hitchcock was seeing how far he could push the audience into sympathizing with a criminal; Norman covers up his mother’s murder of Marion, the movie’s ostensible hero, but when he dumps her car in the swamp and it doesn’t sink right away, I always hold my breath and hope he gets away with it. Fargo uses similar principles to test viewers’ willingness to laugh at things that are resolutely not funny: kidnapping, blackmail, death, woodchipping. Even before Jean is killed, her odyssey is absolutely horrifying. But because those scenes are told from Carl and Gaear’s perspective, I can’t help but laugh at her running blindfolded through the snow. It’s funny and troubling all at once.
Scott: I’d feel remiss if I didn’t put in a word or two for cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Carter Burwell, two longtime Coen brothers collaborators who did some of their best work with the Coens—if not their best work, period—on Fargo. The brilliant whites of Deakins’ photography bring out the harshness of the landscape, making Minnesota appear almost like another country, rather than another state. (The accents reinforce that.) And Burwell’s music has that unforgettable main theme that at times is made to sound homey and tender, and at others has the driving percussion of a thriller. Without Deakins and Burwell, Fargo just wouldn’t be the same.
Matt: Deakins’ work is incredible. And forget making Minnesota look like another country; at times, the fields of snow look so endless and inhospitable, it almost looks like another planet. On a completely unrelated note, the whole time I was watching Fargo this week, I kept thinking: “If Marge is such a good cop, how come she doesn’t know she’s married to the Zodiac Killer?”
Keith: Here’s a question: Why is the film called Fargo? Only that opening scene takes place in Fargo, after all. My theory is this, and I admit it’s a little crackpot: Fargo is evil. It is to the world of this film what Mordor is to Middle Earth, the source of darkness. It’s where the two killers come from, and Jerry’s journey there is a crossing-the-Rubicon moment, transforming him from ordinary businessman who’s gotten in over his head to someone who’s actively set out to defraud and endanger. He doesn’t mean for anyone to get hurt, but that’s a direct consequence of his actions. (And where does he flee after he’s found out? Well, somewhere outside Bismarck. But he has to pass through Fargo to get there, no doubt.) Fargo isn’t a film about Fargo, North Dakota. But it is about the deep, snowy, deathly Fargo of the soul.
Noel: Keith, I remember watching a Coen brothers interview on Charlie Rose after the movie came out, and Rose suggested that the title referred to the movie’s “extreme” violence, asking, “Is this a movie about how far the Coen brothers can go?” (I also remember thinking at the time that Rose must not get out much. But then, this was the era of Pulp Fiction, when otherwise-sheltered public intellectuals were suddenly being told they had to go see movies with a lot of blood, or risk being out of touch.)
There are two more sequences I want to single out. First, I love the haunted quality of the Lundegaard home when Jerry returns to find his plan has been carried out, and I love the way the Coens then undercut the solemnity of the moment with that funny bit where Jerry practices how he’s going to tell Wade about what happened to Jean—then makes the call and gets a secretary. Second, while everyone talks about the left-fieldness of the Mike Yanagita scene, I wish more attention was paid to the scene where one of the policeman follows a tip and questions a local about his encounter with a testy Carl. The scene is pure procedural shoe-leather—just meant to explain how Marge knows where to go looking for the tan Ciera—but it’s also an amusing little playlet, with the snow-shoveling Minnesotan describing a vulgar confrontation in the most reserved terms possible. It’s a scene that really makes the case for the Coens finding Minnesotans funny in a loving way, not a mean-spirited one. And it has a great capper, when these two bundled-up guys note, “Looks like she’s gonna turn cold tomorrow.” As always in Fargo, everything is relative.
Nathan: One thing that struck me upon revisiting the film following Inside Llewyn Davis is how cold it is. Like Inside Llewyn Davis, it captures the chill of the cold on a visceral physical level. I almost wanted to wrap myself up in a big, comfy sweater before diving in. The overwhelming sense of cold pervades everything. It isn’t just weather; it’s practically another character in the movie.
Don’t miss yesterday’s Keynote on Fargo and the five quotes that sum up the film’s Minnesota. Tomorrow, Tasha Robinson concludes our Movie Of The Week discussion with thoughts on morality and punishment in the Coens’ films. And don’t forget to get on your red bicycle and get pumped up for our next Movie Of The Week: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.