There’s a dark and a troubled side of life…
– Ada Blenkhorn and Howard Entwisle, “Keep on the Sunny Side” (1899)
The opening line of the standard American folk song quoted above, often erroneously attributed to A. P. Carter, could serve as a concise summation of the cinematic outlook of Joel and Ethan Coen.1 And while a few of their films might allow for the song’s second line – “there’s a bright and a sunny side, too” – Fargo is scarcely one of them. At best, we might say that Fargo offers “a white and a funny side, too,” with its bleak, blinding snowscapes and pervasive, though dry and still very dark, comedy.
Indeed, this duality between darkness and light informs all of the Coen Brothers’ work: even their most disturbing film, No Country for Old Men (2007), has its share of humourous moments; and their zanier, more comedic works – from Raising Arizona (1987) to The Big Lebowski (1998) and Burn After Reading (2008) – are haunted by nightmares, kidnappings, and even murder. Of all their films, though, Fargo strikes the most perfect blend of these two competing, or rather complementary, impulses.
Such a balancing act between polar opposites is the stuff of mythology, and critics have noted the mythological – at times even epic – dimensions of the Coen Brothers’ ouvre. At the same time, their work is often characterised by a postmodernist, self-aware sense of irony that undercuts a mythologised view of “American life”, even as it enacts that very mythos. Such is the dynamic of Fargo.
Shot almost entirely on location in Minnesota and North Dakota, on a budget of $6.5 million,2 Fargo presents quite a contrast to the Coens’ previous film, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), a lavish, relatively big-budget spectacle shot entirely in studio. Cinematographer Roger Deakins observed that, on a smaller picture such as Fargo, “in a certain sense we could be more flexible… Less pressure, a smaller crew, and a much more intimate production are advantages in many ways.”3
Fargo’s narrative follows a pathetic failure of a man, car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), whose hare-brained, illegal schemes have gotten him in over his head even before the film begins. In an attempt to wriggle his way out of various entanglements, Jerry engages a couple of cheap hoodlums, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), to carry out an ill-conceived kidnapping plot. (Is there any other kind?) As is so often the case with such scenarios, things quickly spiral downward, and the bodies begin to pile up.
Enter the very pregnant Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, Academy Award-winner as Best Actress for this performance), a local police officer whose investigations eventually lead her to the car dealership where Jerry works. Meanwhile, the kidnapping gets farther and farther out of Jerry’s control, as he desperately attempts to maintain an even-keeled façade.
The real horror of Fargo is that many of the characters have thoughtlessly bought into the “sunny” veneer of American culture and the empty promise of “the American Dream”, but at the same time they seem unable to reconcile those impossible visions of optimism with the persistent troubles that plague their lives – often caused by their own lack of self-awareness. Jerry Lundegaard is the walking epitome of this pervasive emotional crisis; but we also find glimpses of it even in the most minor characters, such as the cashier at the diner, whose forced smile and false-cheerful attitude threaten to crack wide open at any moment.
Of the developed characters in the film, only Marge and her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), seem truly happy in their lives. They are not following some prescribed notion of “family life” borrowed from television, as the Lundegaards so ineptly attempt to do; but rather their existence is somewhat less formulaic, less predetermined. As a stay-at-home husband, Norm finds satisfaction in what he does with his life – despite the kitschy nature of his wildlife paintings – and ultimately some professional recognition; and Marge is able to hold onto an essentially positive view of life, despite the horrors of police work. Thus the couple may look forward, with genuine hope and optimism, to the birth of their child in “just two more months,” and to the joy it will bring them. To return to Blenkhorn and Entwisle: “Though we meet with the darkness and strife, the sunny side we also may view.”
Some critics have dismissed Marge’s outlook as laughably naïve in her inability to understand the existence of evil. However, she is more complex than that. Joel Coen explained: “There is… with Frances a very authentic manner, very open in presenting her character. It prevents Marge from becoming a parody of herself.”4 Still others see Marge as the moral center of the film, suggesting that it is her very morality that gives her the ability to love and empathise, but also the capacity for shame – something sorely lacking in most of characters.5 The thing that Marge “just can’t understand,” in her brief conversation with Grimsrud, is this: “There’s more to life than a little money. Don’t you know that?” In that moment, Marge seems to have real pity for Grimsrud, as she would for anyone with no moral compass, anyone who has found neither love nor joy in life – which, after all, is really just a question of outlook.
Fargo has spawned two American television versions: a rejected pilot for an ABC series, eventually aired in 2003 as a “TV movie”, starring Edie Falco as Marge;6 and a highly popular series on the FX network, set to begin its third season in April, 2017. Curiously, the first season of that show (2014), offered a sort of parallel universe to the world of the 1996 film, replete with a pregnant police officer (Allison Tolman) and a Lundegaard-esque “protagonist” (Martin Freeman).
Fargo (1996, USA, 98 mins)
Prod. Co.: Polygram Filmed Entertainment / Working Title Films Prod: Ethan Coen Dir: Joel Coen Scr: Ethan & Joel Coen Phot: Roger Deakins Ed: Roderick Jaynes (pseudonym for Ethan & Joel Coen) Prod Des: Rick Heinrichs Mus: Carter Burwell
Cast: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare
- The song itself makes an “appearance” in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) as the end credits roll. ↩
- David Sterritt, “Fargo in Context: The Middle of Nowhere?” in The Coen Brothers’ Fargo, William Luhr, ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2004), p. 13. ↩
- Chris Probst, “Cold-Blooded Scheming: Roger Deakins and Fargo,” in The Coen Brothers’ Fargo, William Luhr, ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2004), p. 120. ↩
- Michel Ciment and Hubert Niogret, “Closer to Life than the Conventions of Cinema,” in The Coen Brothers: Interviews, William Rodney Allen, ed. (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2006), p. 75. ↩
- Rebecca Hanrahan and David Stearns, “‘And It’s Such a Beautiful Day!’ Shame and Fargo,” in The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers, Mark T. Conard, ed. (Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2012), p. 94. ↩
- James Mottram, The Coen Brothers: the Life of the Mind (Dulles, VA: Brassey’s Inc., 2000), p. 127. ↩