"How do you mean all this—truthfully or ironically?"
—Diderot, Rameau's Nephew
The Coen brothers' film Fargo (1996) begins with two riddles—the first, a verbal riddle about truth-telling in cinema, the second, an image riddle about whiteness. Both of them are worth considering at some length, I think, especially as they pertain to the film's late-arriving hero, Marge Gunderson. She offers an implicit challenge to the ironic solution of the first riddle and a compelling alternative to the nihilistic drift of the second. My Marge-centered examination of the riddles will prepare the ground for an argument about the status of irony in relation to different kinds of visibility. I shall be chiefly concerned throughout this essay with Fargo's rhetorical procedures, and their implications. Questions about how the film situates itself in popular culture, especially in relation to established movie genres, will be touched on only in passing.
The verbal riddle that precedes the opening credits takes the form of a printed text, which, if read cursorily—simply to gain information—might be viewed in the same light as the conventional tag-line for countless movies loosely derived from "real events." "This is a true story," the first sentence declares, with no apparent difficulty. "The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987." The identification of time and setting seems a sturdy follow-up to the initial avowal of truth, promptly supplying what anyone waiting for facts might reasonably expect to get hold of early on. How pleasant it feels to be able to disregard all the years in the chaotic procession of history but one, and to pin that year to the crisp outline of a northern state, Minnesota, that we may remember from the multicolored maps that greeted us from the walls and geography books of our elementary school classrooms. Surely no item in our early learning environments is likely to have contributed more to our self-confident sense of placement as Americans than the guileless map, with its sea-to-shining-sea demonstration of our neatly compartmented holdings. "Out of many, one," the picture of the "original" forty-eight states effortlessly demonstrates. Thus, whichever state one elects to dwell in for storytelling purposes allows one to be both local and general simultaneously. Any state will no doubt turn out to be a story site linked in essential ways to everything else that we unthinkingly designate American. Are we meant to register the "disparity" (to use a word that one of the characters in Fargo will fasten on, self-consciously, when attempting to express worry about a gap) between the state mentioned in the text as the story setting and the city, Fargo, which belongs to an adjoining state, North Dakota, but nevertheless rather grandly gives the film its title? If we are invited to notice this split, it hardly seems enough to excite reader skepticism, or "worry."
The Coen brothers' text becomes slightly less manageable with its third sentence, where we learn that "At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed." "Survivors" tells us that the narrative may be devoting considerable space to those who did not survive. The nature of the request the survivors have made would indicate that there are elements in the story to be told which they would prefer not to be affiliated with too directly or openly. There is something unspoken lurking behind this terse acknowledgment which teases us by remaining elusive and sets us, ever so mildly, adrift. The survivors of some misfortune, to which dishonor may be attached, have been in touch with the filmmaker who will soon, they fear, be "rampaging" in the history of other people's sorrows. They have managed to secure one concession from him—that all the names of those involved in the sordid incidents, the guilty as well as the innocent, will be altered. The survivors perhaps recall the narrator's imperious voice on the old television series, Dragnet, which assured the audience every week that "only the names have been changed to protect the innocent." How much protection, one wonders, will this scrambling of names confer, when the time and setting of the still recent tragedy are no secret? In the few moments we are given to make sense of this piece of the text, we might consider, not very precisely, how important or unimportant actual names are when telling a true story; where we ourselves stand these days in relation to our own names (it used to be commonly said that one stood behind one's name if one wanted that name to stand for character); and how it once seemed to Othello's "honest" Iago that the stealing of one's "good name" could leave a person utterly destitute. We might also reflect that discretion is an endangered, old-fashioned virtue, as we smile at the naiveté of those survivors thinking they might prevent a hailstorm of publicity for their lost loved ones, through the bogus guarantee of anonymity.
In the fourth and final sentence of the preliminary text, all pretense of clarity and straightforwardness dissolves, unless the viewer contrives a pretense of his own that he can still follow the writer's logic. I would guess that the Coen brothers count on our desire to avoid making work for ourselves this early, so that we will docilely accept a nonsensical statement as though it somehow keeps faith with the more or less reasonable ones leading up to it. "Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred." Once the necessary bargain over name changes has been struck with the anxious survivors, the filmmaker firmly resolves to give no further quarter to dramatic license. He will resist all temptations to distort or in any way embellish the facts of the story he is telling, "out of respect for the dead." The dead, after all, can make no requests on their own behalf (unlike the survivors, with their perhaps pardonable inclination to cloak and alter). Therefore, if one is to respect their too easily forgotten rights, and give them what they are entitled to, one must not forgo a single detail in the "exact" re-telling of the disaster that befell them.
The filmmakers want to make sure that we grasp how fully they honor the obligations that come with the claim, "This is a true story." Fiction, with its caprices, showy eloquence and artful economy, is simply not right for the job. As everyone knows, fiction is notoriously inexact and lacking in a sober regard for reality's weighty integrity. How can it be expected to give a just, properly full accounting to the dead, who can only be helped now by facts? The phrasing of the Coens' final sentence neatly balances the idea of mourners' etiquette (paying all due respect) with the suggestion of a stirring pledge to take up the cause of the dead as if it were one's own. The Coens shoulder, without complaint, the burden of a faithful re-construction. If imagination has no role to play in the presentation of this narrative, the viewer will have little reason to bemoan its absence.
At the end of Ethan Coen's introduction to the published screenplay of Fargo, he informs the reader that the story the movie tells "aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true." This announcement is planned, with a good yarn spinner's cunning, as the surprise ending to a vivid anecdotal account of the Coens' grandmother's way of misremembering and innocently re-inventing the circumstances of her harsh, already improbable experiences in New York City, as an exile from Russia. Coen's entire introduction can be viewed as a gloss on the four-sentence lie that is our first contact with the world of Fargo. The sharp-witted tone he adopts for debunking, yet again, ordinary notions of truth reminds me of several lines from Czeslaw Milosz's poem, "Ars Poetica": "and so you think that I am only joking / or that I've devised just one more means / of praising Art with the help of irony." Maybe we derive too automatic a comfort and consolation in this period of round-the-clock irony from Art's irony-fortified retreat from truth-telling. The stories that filmmakers, novelists and other, inspired counterfeiters invent can, beyond question, vastly exceed in interest and expressive force the gray, habit-choked, ponderous "daily doings" that Ordinary Citizens persist in maintaining are superior simply by virtue of having really happened. But Fargo's unrevoked assertion that it is a "true story" gains some advantage from its appeal to the public record. The director's professed determination to do justice to the victims' experience puts some salutary pressure on our response to the movie's strong preoccupation with the intimate textures of torture and bloodletting, and to its arguably uncharitable comic perspective on a world populated almost exclusively by "funny-looking" people speaking in funny regional accents. Moreover, the spectator will perhaps be more hesitant than usual about dismissing outrageous character behavior or crazy swerves in the plot as mere contrivance. After all, who wants to be the bumpkin, in an after-the-movie argument about plausibility, confronted with someone else's newspaper evidence that the very scene one refused to take seriously in a story was the one that adhered most scrupulously to eyewitness testimony? ("Oh, dear. Then my conception of reality was too narrowly conventional!") What I find most intriguing about Fargo's initial visit to the playground of the post-modern lie is that it is so completely at odds with the mind-set and value system of the film's wholly admirable hero—the seven-months pregnant police chief, Marge Gunderson. Spurious truth claims designed to mislead credulous moviegoers would almost certainly not amuse her, gain her approval, or make any sense to her. While Marge is not portrayed as a humorless character (she tells at least one clever joke to her assistant, Lou, and suggests, at various points, that she is aware of a comic element in situations that it would be impolite to react to openly), she does seem devoid of any sense of irony. The absence of irony seems the necessary trade-off to allow the quaint, anachronistic virtues she so conspicuously possesses their arguably unironic triumph in the film. The positive attributes that are central to her characterization are: unself-conscious naturalness, consistent sincerity, and good manners. For Marge, manners do not function as a veneer or as some form of artificial, programmed behavior, suppressing a more authentic self-expression she has not had the daring to try out. Instead, manners are—in her way of living through them—a crucial, moving illumination of what Edith Wharton has termed "that vast noiseless labor of the spirit going on everywhere beneath the social surface." While they are not always a reliable indicator of character (Marge, as a police investigator, is well-acquainted with suspects' need to dissemble), the breakdown or abuse of manners testifies to a degree of human carelessness that generally warrants attention and, on rare occasions, censure. Recall that Marge's first powerful intimation of Jerry Lundegaard's guilt occurs, Jane Austen-style, when he suddenly surrenders all pretense of civility.
(Top) Brainerd Chief of Police Marge gunderson (Frances McDormand) and her husband Norman (John Carroll Lynch) drift off in front of the TV. (Bottom) Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) discovers that even the best laid plans can backfire.
Marge is not opposed to irony, since that would imply a comprehension of the mental condition that calls it forth—as refuge, say, or antidote. She is immune to irony as someone who has never felt deeply betrayed by plain speaking, and who hasn't, from an early age, largely feigned interest in other people's lives. She is nowhere near the state of solipsistic restlessness where conversation means simply waiting for your turn. Though she is not insecure about having her own view of things challenged, and is perfectly willing to declare her opinions on any subject, she has no craving for argument. Argument, as Hannah Arendt once noted, can be a potent "substitute for thought," and, of course, for the demands of listening. Marge Gunderson reminds me of the young child in Penelope Fitzgerald's novel, The Blue Flower, "whose experience of life must so far have been favorable, since he smiled at anything in human form." Marge's smiles are not often literal (her face generally wears the stoic expression of someone raised to meet the challenges of a punishing climate), but she consistently greets people with such an authentic air of welcome that it has the affirming effect of a child's easy, trusting acceptance. Individuals have not yet reduced themselves to drearily familiar types in her mind. And their common topics of talk have not grown stale from overuse. When she converses, it is an active exchange, where whatever is on offer is earnestly regarded as a thing of renewable interest rather than critically probed for some show of novelty. The ongoing availability of basic human fellowship, with its chance of news or equally agreeable assurance that known patterns are holding steady, is more than enough to keep her involvement alive. Marge finds social occasions, with their accustomed musical rhythm that all by itself "ameliorates the affections," a rich complement to her married relationship to Norm. With her husband, conversation invariably moves at a slower pace, and can regularly lapse into silence, with no sense on either side that communication or understanding has abated.
For Marge, making a game of truth (as the Coens do in their introductory text) is the business of liars and used car salesmen. She would imagine that such deceivers eventually trip themselves up or give themselves away. And why would anyone go to the trouble of naming something true that wasn't when there was no advantage to be gained from it? Even if no harm was done, what's the point? Bad habits, like bad manners, will in time become legible—like footprints in the snow. And one can know where such practices lead without wasting a lot of mental energy trying to figure out what gave rise to them. Marge has had enough direct exposure to the varieties of criminal deviousness, large and small, to cure herself of any fascination with them. And although she apparently watches quite a bit of television, she hasn't been infected by that medium's lubricating ironies and pervasive mood of instant knowingness. Literally, she can find no earthly use for irony or any kindred way of thinking which advocates the suspension of plain dealing and the disparagement of ordinary social virtues.
Why are the Coen brothers, whose previous films have been steadfastly ironic (and too often, I fear, smugly so) keeping company with such a hero, who would have no access to their preferred tone and not even a faint willingness to enter into the spirit of their "hard" comedy? Whatever she finally comes to represent in the film, it does not include being in on the joke. When she first turns up in Fargo, it seems reasonable to assume that, whatever her level of competence in police work, she is being established as someone we will frequently be able to laugh at. Her take on things, compared to ours, seems divertingly unsophisticated. We do not know, or perhaps much care, whether she will prove equal to the murderers she is tracking. What makes the solution relatively unimportant is the fact that we begin so far ahead of her in our knowledge of the crimes that have been committed, as well as what lies behind them. She arrives on the scene unusually late for a main character. We are encouraged to believe that she is almost a mock representative of the law, one who may eventually stumble onto the truth, but will provide only a limited perspective on the world she so uncritically inhabits. Marge will not, it would appear, afford us a means of obtaining a more inclusive vision of human desperation and destructiveness than we already have at our disposal.
The fact that she lacks any of the author-ironist's tools for crafty readings of the movie's action suggests that her moral growth in the course of the narrative must be of the rite-of-passage variety. She will move from a state of countrified insularity to a level of awareness more closely approximating the spectator's own cynicism-nurtured, weatherbeaten maturity. In the absence of such development, she will have minimal mobility on the film's complexly layered playing field. It is as though Andy Griffith accidentally drove his Mayberry police cruiser into the landscape of In Cold Blood, and determined that Mayberry rules would be adequate to the demands of whatever nastiness confronted him there.
Our preliminary expectations about Marge are borne out in one vital, but ultimately misleading respect. She remains throughout the film a character available to comic response. When we are invited to laugh at her, it is generally because of some perceived inequality between her sense of what is going on and ours. We might flatter ourselves that there is some advantage, amounting perhaps to superiority, in our being able to see things about Marge that she is not able to see, in the same light, for herself. (And she is, of course, best left ignorant of what we notice and take affectionate comic pleasure in.) As the narrative proceeds, the comedy imperceptibly grows more protective of Marge, stopping short of pushing its observation of her over the cruelty threshold. The Coens bring her closer to us by regularly emphasizing her skill and overall decency. Still, our first impression of her as ingenuous is allowed to persist, in part because she does not undergo any significant transformation of attitude. Even her final confrontation with a sample of stomach-churning evil—Grimsrud feeding his partner's body through a woodchipper—does not bring about a change in her values or basic mindset. We might well feel disposed to say that she is someone with blinkered vision, whose world, while a source of contentment to her and a "homey, exotic" place for us to visit briefly, is necessarily smaller than ours. It is less complex, less exacting, and cannot match our more "evolved" imagination of how things presently are in our culture.
I think that the Coens intend for us to come only belatedly (if at all) to an alternative conclusion: that she possibly, just possibly, sees things that are beyond us and that our perspective on our own situation is less adequate than we had supposed. What the Coens have accomplished in this "hazardous" film is something akin to what Richard Poirier has found going on in numerous Robert Frost poems. Poirier convincingly demonstrates how Frost's "greatness depends in large part on his actually seeking out opportunities for being in untenable positions." In Fargo, the untenable position might be described in the following terms. An ironist, who has by no means grown weary of irony's pleasures, and is not free to exchange them in any case for some other way of contriving fictions which might hope to illuminate the world's strange "folds and wrinkles," fastens on a presence who, taken seriously, might imperil his entire system. The threat that is posed is not the result of a rational argument or a direct confrontation. It quietly emerges from a set of imagined conditions in which irony is simply invisible to a figure who knows something not instantly dismissable about living in a state of wholeness—call it integration if the word wholeness raises too many problems. What might it mean for irony's taken-for-granted centrality if a person who has fairly estimated her chances for being contented and useful in this dark time, who meets her world daily in a full, balanced spirit of possibility and who knows how to stay grounded, has no need of irony?
It could be objected here that Marge is no more than a fictional construct, tactically introduced as a contrast to other forces and attitudes, and that her interest for us lies chiefly—and properly—in her relation to other figures within the invented structure we think of as Fargo. If the Coens had supplied us with a quantity of Marges in the film, without the regular relief of monstrous carnage and tribulation, she would doubtless lose her hold on the viewer's ethical imagination. She would appear less worthy of attention and curiosity because she was deprived of her singularity. A whole community of Marges would make the spectator hungry for more reckless, eccentric ways of being. Marge in another context could seem a state of mind too easily attained, and one which, if allowed to dominate by force of numbers and bland consensus, would conceivably be a weight oppressively bearing down on other kinds of human aspiration. For the Coens to calculate how the felicitous endowments of one Marge Gunderson might serve their narrative purposes on this one occasion and bring a tricky comic story to an emotionally gratifying (because life-affirming) conclusion is saying something quite different than that the Coens have fomented a crisis of faith in their authority as ironists. Clearly in art one can happily occupy all sorts of temporarily amenable mindsets without feeling logically bound to their terms or consequences. Seeking out the untenable, as Frost and Poirier propose it, has to be understood metaphorically. How then has the ironist made any serious trouble for himself by growing fond of a pregnant police chief?
In reply to this many-sided challenge, I would begin by emphasizing a truth about art that is too often brushed aside or left out of consideration. Just as other forms of life experience leave room for the decisive encounter, the moment of surrender, the wrestling with knowledge or grief or illness that moves you from one state of being to another, so too the act of creating something is commonly launched by the hope, and the attendant risks, of going beyond oneself. The argument against the likelihood of Marge becoming something more than the Coen brothers' customary approach to characterization is equipped to deal with depends, I think, on an overvaluing of those aspects of the creative process directed by reason, will, and well-formulated intentions.
It is easy to consider any satisfying, finished piece of work, after the fact, as the result of an obvious, more or less orderly set of associations and connections. Facing a poem or a painting or a song from the outside, we are apt to be struck—if the work pleases us—by the elements that give evidence of the artist's control: of her craft, discipline, formal decisions and calculations. Less conspicuous, especially at a cultural moment when so many of the tenets of Romanticism are under suspicion, are the signs of how a work possessed its maker, created difficulties and real psychic dangers for her, and led her far astray from some insufficient preliminary plan. It is never obvious to the beholder how something that might have remained mechanical, formulaic, or well-crafted but inert (in short, unmemorable for whatever reason) has been tricked into full-bodied life. Any art that works can so readily exhibit the luster of the self-evident. It feels inevitable, rather than an improbable victory over a vastly superior adversary. On occasion, to be sure, the "confident craftsman" dimension of the artist is in control of the creative process from start to finish. She knows, like a good carpenter, what needs to be done from the outset, can see her way to the end of her task without impediment, and supplies what's fitting and delightful on demand. Nonetheless, the mystery of so much of the art that holds us captive—that makes us want to come back to it and turn it around in our minds—is a haunting awareness that something has become powerfully visible without anyone quite knowing how, under a particular, unrepeatable set of conditions. We require just these words, these images, that melody, that form, to secure our enduring, gratefully mystified attachment.
My feeling about Marge in Fargo is that she becomes a figure of genuine moral stature and a wondrous source of equilibrium precisely by not meaning to, by not having pedagogic designs on us. I think she takes the spectator by surprise in a manner that echoes the way in which she took her writers by surprise. For both parties (spectator and writer) she only gradually becomes clear, like a figure emerging from a blizzard, where a certain amount of confusion and waiting are an essential prelude to positive identification. I will be arguing that a character (like the narrative that contains her) can be born under the sign of irony, with a prescribed, limited function, but that in order to do her work credibly in such an inhospitable atmosphere she must generate a different kind of light for herself, which irony can neither regulate nor see by. As I noted earlier, it seems remarkable to me that Marge never comes to see irony as a force to reckon with, something "alien" that interferes with or challenges her freedom and sense of truth. It stays invisible to her, and perhaps as a necessary corollary, she becomes invisible to it insofar as she guides us to a dependable moral shape of things in Fargo's world. (Mere lack of irony, or insulation from it, are by themselves, of course, no guarantee of goodness and insight. Jerry Lundegaard, for example, is arguably as unmindful of irony as Marge Gunderson, and it avails him naught. Irony might, in fact, be precisely the medicine he needs to enter, maybe for the first time, the realm of self-awareness.)
Let me say a bit more about how Marge and what she comes to embody may remain somewhat hidden, and unwanted, even for the Coens themselves. Fargo owes much of its effect of tonal density to the fact that it is not only the viewer but the writers and director who are made somewhat uncomfortable by her demands, and resist the idea of using her, in a consistent or predictable fashion, as a moral touchstone. Ordinarily, in film, it is a matter of no great difficulty for a director to declare and sustain his allegiance to a thoroughly principled protagonist—to make her cause his own, for the sake of the story. But I think the Coens initially approach Marge's square sense of honor and uprightness with marked hesitation, and an almost defensive wariness. Old-fashioned virtues, too plainly sanctioned, might well place undue restraint on their robust fascination with cruelty, and their unquenchable urge to revel in unfairness. It is instructive to remember that the camera movement which introduces us to Marge, for the first time, in her bedroom, begins with a survey of her husband Norm's art materials and paintings, including his work-in-progress, a meticulously realistic oil painting of a grey mallard. Norm and his wife are fully at home in the company of art such as this. It seems reasonable to suggest that neither of them has thought much about art which has a fundamentally different, necessarily more oblique and self-conscious relation to its materials. The Coens do not ask us to view Norm's art realm disrespectfully, but they implicitly declare that they cannot align themselves with his earnest, literalist perspective. His picture of nature, however sensitively observant and skillfully executed, cannot be theirs. And Marge, similarly, can be of no help in determining what their kind of art is for.
On numerous occasions in Fargo, the Coens deliberately underscore their complicity with those characters who either take pride in feeling nothing or who are so far gone in breezy callousness that they scarcely notice what's missing. The moments I refer to exacerbate moral tension by refusing to grant us an authorial vantage point clearly at odds with the cold-blooded "skewering" on view. I think immediately of the father-son bedroom scene in which Jerry, who has engineered his wife's abduction, adopts a consoling, worried demeanor with his weeping child, Scotty, in order to ensure that the boy will lie about his mother's disappearance to anyone who asks about her. Scotty is effectively cut off, by this request, from those relatives and friends who might care about him and in whom he might confide. We notice during the father-son exchange that an accordion is present on Scotty's bed, and it is likely that Scotty has been attempting to distract himself by practicing his instrument before Jerry pays him his brief visit. As Jerry leaves, he pulls the door to Jerry's room shut behind him, at which point we are obliged to examine, in enormous close-up, a poster celebrating the Accordion King, a grotesquely jovial, "Lawrence Welk-ish" virtuoso in an Alpine setting. The Coens declare a mystifying time-out from our consideration of Scotty's awful predicament in order to elicit a thin laugh at the boy's bad taste in music and artwork.
Elsewhere, a similarly disconnected mood of hollow derisiveness settles on the Coens' sharp highlighting of crooked teeth, lavish homeliness, and dumb-as-a-brick, automaton cheeriness as the defining features of various cashiers, clerks, and perhaps most notably, prostitute witnesses in the area around Brainerd. The Coens appear to engage a little too knowingly and aggressively in the humiliation of certain minor characters. They alternate between giving "ordinariness" its due and twisting it for the sake of a rude, caricature vividness. Possibly because they don't wish to be seen genuflecting at the altar of small town mediocrity, the Coens periodically indulge in willfully mean "quick sketches." They run the risk with such a tactic of confusing the undeniable pleasures of comically off-center observation with a mere facile smirking at crudely overstressed incidentals of appearance and manner.
As I've already noted, the Coens are reluctant to commit themselves too early or too unreservedly to Marge's ethical stance, or her easygoing altruism. In at least one scene, Marge's nearly affectless first encounter with the corpses of a fellow officer and two young victims, the Coens come close to losing sight of who she is, and of what they ultimately intend to do with her. They may be playing against the grain of the viewer's expectations that a female officer will be more openly upset than her stoic wiseacre male counterparts in television cop shows, but the comic surprise is worrisomely offset by an insufficiently layered presentation of the brute facts. The undependability of moral perspective in Fargo, even at times when Marge is present, leads to interesting confusions and collisions at those many significant junctures where a difficult, emotionally subtle awareness is required of us. At whatever risk to narrative cohesiveness, the Coens are determined that the feeling option should never be a simple component of a narrative situation. After all, accepting an unmistakable invitation to be solicitous can be like treating oneself to a doughnut. As Osip Mandelstam wittily comments in his "Fourth Prose," once one has finished eating it, "the hole remains."
The opening shot of Fargo confronts us, as I mentioned at the beginning of the essay, with an image riddle of whiteness. We gaze at a completely white frame, unable to ascertain whether we are looking at the blank envelope of the movie screen itself or an ivory background for the credits to be printed on. There is no evidence that a moving picture image is already in progress. We are obliged to stay with this unyielding veil for quite a few moments until we can make out the signs of windswept snowfall. The white blindness becomes all at once a natural phenomenon, what a weather reporter would describe as exceedingly poor visibility. An apparent nothing has converted before our eyes into a dense, swirling, undifferentiated force that could just as easily be rising up from the invisible ground as descending from an indecipherable sky. All that one can plainly discern is that the snow is happening, and there is no getting past it to some more stable resting point. A single vehicle emerges, welcomely, from the curtain of snow, with its headlights on. This object supplies us not only with the sense of a living soul making progress in trying circumstances (who surely has a better idea than we have of where we are), but also with the fact of a road, which will lead us somewhere. "Somewhere" is the eternal promise of movie narrative, the movement from a blank screen to one lit from within by our belief in (hunger for) magical revelations. While the car stays small and far-off, it feels like a benefactor, hinting that its mission might be to locate us in our state of total disorientation, and perform a rescue. It is escorted at this stage of its journey by a barely noticeable bird in flight. This creature seems not much more than a speck of black in the whiteness, making lateral, random sweeps not too high above the road, as though less confident of its destination than the car. The presence of the bird seems to draw the car somewhat closer to the landscape, as though the storm created a kinship between whatever is caught up and lost in it—an equivalence among wayfarers. There is something movingly instructive in the creaturely search for safe haven. When we have had time to accumulate such impressions, the car disappears for an interval, obscured by a hill. When eventually it returns to view, it has undergone a disturbing metamorphosis. As it draws near to us, it ceases to be good company in the storm. We can see now that it is a car equipped with a hitch towing another vehicle, but this additional bit of information matters less than something newly brutal and looming about the car and its felt relation to us. It bears down ominously, like a slow-moving Juggernaut, and the music that accompanies its advance is heavy and unnerving. (Later in the film, a similar effect will be achieved when the camera slowly reveals to us the Paul Bunyan statue in Brainerd after nightfall. A strong protector is transformed by a trick of light and shift of angle into our worst fear. He is suddenly invested with all the lurking demonic impulses associated with darkness.) We are not granted a close view of the car's driver, so it can easily seem that the mechanism is operated by forces that somehow go beyond a mere individual's will. The car and the extra burden it carries acquire the appearance of something darkly fated, inexorable.
Let us return to the riddle of whiteness and think about the route we have taken in the film's opening. A white silence proposes itself as an appropriate empty space for us to wait in until the story begins. We are in transition; we are given a few moments to clear our minds of anything likely to interfere with our enjoyment of this movie. As long as it doesn't go on too long, whiteness can be a tranquil metaphor for unwanted things fading out. It's interesting how this mental activity of fade-out and clearing away as we wait for something to happen coincides with the breaking awareness that the image is already full and that our eyes must adjust to its dazzling turbulence. There is an undeniable pleasure in such deception. Our ability to take notice is suddenly called upon in a manner that makes us reflect on it. It is like remembering a talent we'd forgotten we possessed. Working our way out of perceptual confusion makes us more than usually attentive to the play of appearances, to how one sort of appearance delightfully masks another. And indeed as we grasp the snowstorm as a reality we have not only seen, but imagined, for ourselves, it strikes us first as a thing of beauty. Our eyes have retrieved it from an apparent emptiness, and thus briefly it figures as our own creation. Very quickly, and unreluctantly, we will give up that sense of the snow in favor of a more pragmatic, driver's assessment. The weather is nasty. It is nearly impossible to see where one is going and it would be awful to get stuck in the midst of so threatening a squall. The satisfaction we found as viewers in looking at the snow as something powerfully manifesting its own visibility is fleeting. But our contact with the sheer mystery of snow is worth stressing. We have undergone an awakening, a jubilant awakening to the fact that snow is presently there to contemplate. And for the time spent catching the drift of whiteness, it is like we are being let in on a wonderful secret.
Close to the end of Fargo, Marge is attempting to learn from the adamantly silent murderer, Grimsrud, what could possibly have led him to take five people's lives. Her last words to him follow her question about what it was all for. Is it possible he really doesn't know that "there's more to life than a little money?" "And here you are," she continues, as though it were still not too late to turn even that fact to good account, "and it's a beautiful day." We are then given a view of the road outside her police cruiser which reveals a snowfall no more inviting than that which opened the film. (The Coens absolutely refuse the chance to soften this rough weather with some obvious visual poetry.) I think the challenge that is offered us in this late scene is how to take Marge's words unironically, to consider how there may be beauty in this blizzardy day which one need not delude oneself to casually acknowledge. The casualness is the surprise, proceeding from Marge's assurance that she is saying something self-evident. We are not dealing here with a stern northern resolve to accept the weather's meager benefits without complaint. Neither is it a matter of willing into existence all-but-invisible consolations in dire circumstances. Rather, Marge turns her not easily disappointed gaze toward the objects before her in an unusually open fashion. We have experienced exactly Marge's response to snowstorm beauty ourselves, in the film's first shot, whether we've retained the memory or not. We are enjoined perhaps to make the trip back to first things, so the snow will be for us the kind of "first snow" that Mary Oliver lights upon in the remarkable poem of that title: "The snow / began here / this morning, and all day continued, its white / rhetoric everywhere / calling us back to why, how, whence such beauty and what / the meaning; such an oracular fever! flowing / past windows, an energy it seemed / would never ebb, never settle / less than lovely! and only now, / deep into night, / it has finally ended."
Of course, we are free to look out the police cruiser window with Grimsrud's dead stare, and merely shake our heads. If he had a sense of humor, we could share a laugh with him over the misery-confirming nothingness of the god-forsaken place he is leaving behind. Grimsrud is one of two close-mouthed characters in Fargo, the other being the garage mechanic and ex-convict, Shep Proudfoot, who "vouches" for Grimsrud's character when asked to recommend someone reliable for the job of kidnapper. Silence is often taken to be a measure of one's degree of at-homeness in nature. The man who is not struggling with his environment or seeking to complicate his strong, simple relation to it is almost expected to forgo language, as if by doing so he has moved beyond it to a deeper, more elemental life. Silence suggests, without much call for demonstration, that one has arrived at a better way of knowing, one less reliant on game-playing, falsity, manipulation of all sorts. Silence can seem like a place of healing as well, from the sickness of too much needless, self-justifying talk, and therefore feels closely allied to wisdom.
Grimsrud might pass as the human embodiment of the Minnesota terrain, in its unmerciful, indifferent stillness. He directs us to a nihilistic reading of the "monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him." The image is Herman Melville's, from the famous catalogue of the terrors of whiteness in "The Whiteness of the Whale" chapter of Moby-Dick. Grimsrud's retreat to a realm where language can barely penetrate and his zombie-like immersion in the predator's bloody work can be seen as a response to some ultimate blankness figured in "the desolate shiftings of the windrowed snows of prairies." Like Melville's albino whale, one "sees naught in that brute but the deadliest ill." His senseless killings create a momentum toward Senselessness writ large, as if the only persuasive attribute of the human were expendability. He is what that car seems to be bringing toward us in the storm at the beginning of Fargo, after it turns hostile. Instead of rescue or reconnection with what we understand, the car seems to bear tidings of "heartless voids and immensities." Though its lights are on, it is a "blind" rather than a seeing force. The vehicle has adapted itself to prevailing conditions, as it were. It appears to derive a malevolent strength from taking on the snow's blindness to any appeal in its path.
In the course of Fargo's opening montage, the car (with its tow-hitch burden) is presented to us from a variety of angles and distances, in some of which it appears engaged in normal human business. In one sustained long shot, it is completely dwarfed by the boundless prairie flatness. The car's ability to hold on to its menacing power proves as limited as the viewer's ability to retain her first delighted sense of the snow's mysterious loveliness. One impression of truth gives way to another, and then another. The effect of the entire sequence of shots is a trying out of multiple perspectives on this "undecided" environment—in search of proportions that give the best overall fit to what is being revealed to us. Our shifting judgment of how the car journey makes sense of the landscape, and vice versa, mirrors the mental state of the thoroughly disoriented man who is doing the driving, Jerry Lundegaard. Jerry is en route to Fargo to complete arrangements for his wife Jean's kidnapping. Somehow he has determined that the "deal" he is planning to close with an unknown pair of thugs willing to do all the dirty work is the best way to clear up his financial woes and put his life back in order. The immediate goal of his journey is a first meeting with Grimsrud and his freshly recruited partner, Carl. In order to come up with his kidnapping plan, Jerry must have lost any sense of his wife as a separate, or even a real, person. He has forgotten that what he is doing will result, at the very least, in immense suffering for her, just as he later forgets that he has a son, Scott, who is grieving because she is gone. Both wife and son are confused with elements of a plot he's made up to get himself out of difficulties. He is, in his carefree handling of the lives entrusted to him, a post-modernist of sorts, for whom no story and no attachment to others is truer than the worthless Trucoat sealant he attempts to foist on his customers at the auto dealership. Does his inability to think his way through his assumptions make the consequences of the permanent game he is playing different?
Once again the issue is one of visibility—how a character sees or fails to see what is in front of him. The Coens devise a striking recurrent metaphor for the insidious blur that creeps into our associations with others, even those "ties" which are nominally our closest ones. At various points in the film, we are obliged to look at television screens where the image is lost or partially obscured because of reception difficulties. This is another form of "snow"—one that afflicts frustrated viewers indoors. Jerry's family has turned invisible to him in his solipsistic distraction. They have slipped out of emotional focus without his even noticing he has lost contact. By contrast, when Carl Showalter, one of the kidnappers, discovers that he is stranded in a cabin with no access to a clear television image, he pounds and beseeches the set as though his life and sanity depended on his getting a signal that remained steady. When Jerry returns to his home after Jean's kidnapping, the television show she has been watching has decomposed into snow. The hiss of the set is the only sound left to mark the fact of her recent presence here. It links us to her by a suggestion of abrupt severing and lingering fade-out, as if the room itself has not quite had time to move forward; it is somehow still processing and faintly echoing her disappearance. Is this barely audible interior snowfall—accompanied by the slow sift of actual snow through a shattered window—a reinforcement of Grimsrud's empty silence (that is to say, a silence that empties things out)? Or is it better understood as a restorative silence, the kind that solicits us to fill things up?
Grimsrud's silence is contrasted with silences of different character and import throughout Fargo, and it is by noting what the changes in silence express that we can finally place Grimsrud's where it belongs, at the lowest level. His silence does not connect him with the natural world. He is as cut off from nature as he is from other people. All that lives inside his failure to speak is a rage of disappointment. Grimsrud has denied himself every state of mind but one; he is addicted to feeling put upon, and finds pleasure only in not giving others what they always unfairly try to get from him: a response. As the territory inside Grimsrud continues to shrink because of his steadfast refusal to see anything of value that might be added to him "from outside," he can only man the barricades with an ever-more combative silence, and violently protect what is his from those who dare to make any demands. He has not moved beyond language. He is simply stuck at one of the language learner's first words—an unreflecting "no." His fixity and perceptual poverty are a cancer of the social, not a breakthrough into a more authentic realm.
Since The Silence of the Lambs, it has become fashionable in movies to present murderers as cunning philosophers, whose intricate viciousness is a powerful (and maybe legitimate) expression of their well-thought-out radical skepticism. Fargo returns the murderer to a condition of muddle and ignorance. Murder in this narrative has nothing to do with lucidity or a coming to fuller awareness. It means entering the snowfield of a television screen as deeply as Grimsrud does when he is finally alone in the cabin after killing Jean for making noise. Grimsrud dazedly watches two actors in a soap opera through a thick, grating haze. The actors trade words like "big" and "small" as they try to organize their responses to someone's pregnancy. The words will not make meaning that can be felt or released. There is too much "interference" to see either actor's expression clearly, and the exaggerated performances lack any conviction, to begin with. This is the world that Grimsrud, eerily happy for the only time in the film, comes home to after his crimes. The truth of the image for him lies in the fact that nothing whatever needs to come clear, that any distinctions—between the haze and the drama, between speaker and listener, between his own life in the room and the spectral patterns on the tiny screen—are appropriately lost.
Let us return now to the silence in the Gunderson home after Jerry discovers that Jean has, in actual fact, been kidnapped. This is a silence that moves us past emptiness to a state of active involvement. We are called upon to pay close attention here and make something significant out of what we see. At first it seems we are attached to Jerry Lundegaard's point-of-view as he returns home with two bags of groceries and discovers that his crackpot scheme has turned real, and sprouted ugly consequences he had not foreseen in his rapt fixation on his own troubles. The purpose of the scene, as it gets underway, might simply be described thus. Jerry is recalled to a sense of his wife's humanity. By concentrating on the mute evidence remaining from her near-fatal struggle with her captors, Jerry will be obliged to dwell seriously on just what it is he has done to her. How can he avoid imagining the ordeal she has been through, and the possibility that she is already dead? The camera quietly reviews the details of the conflict we have earlier witnessed while it unfolded. We see the shower curtain that Jean was covered by as she fled in panic from the bathroom before plunging down a flight of stairs and receiving the head injury that left her unconscious. We see the crowbar that has smashed through a sliding glass door in the living room and pried open the bathroom door behind which she cowered in terror. It now lies on the bathroom floor, close to a bent window frame and a severed phone cord. The shower curtain hooks, still on the rod, are presented in close-up, revealing small remnants of plastic, that remind me, at least, of bits of torn flesh.
Very shortly we will discover that Jerry has come to no fresh realization of the enormity of his wrongdoing. The expression of basset-hound mournfulness he wears as he lingers outside the bathroom door comes to his face automatically, in case anyone might be watching. One may recall the ease with which he slips into this expression when confronted by customers he's lied to during his car sales. We assume incorrectly then that we and Jerry have looked at the same things with a roughly equivalent sense of what they mean. It seems to matter quite a bit that he feel the crime in its aftermath, once it is too late to put anything right. When Jerry fails to feel what we decide it is natural and right for him to feel; when he avoids taking in any of the silently eloquent details of the crime, where do we come out, as spectators? Do we decide that we have been tricked into a mistaken reading of Jerry's potential for remorse, and leave it at that? Do we perhaps relish the chance to laugh at the latest proof of Jerry's heartlessness: an extended rehearsal of his phone call to his father-in-law breaking the dreadful news? (Jerry tries out various phrases and sounds that might plausibly convey grief, and since we hear his voice before we are shown that he is merely drilling himself with dry runs, we are possibly caught holding an emotion that we have been foolishly conned into sharing.) Is the result of our emotional investment in this silent review of the kidnapping mainly further instruction in irony's superiority to the facile ooze of empathy?
I believe there are more interesting possibilities to consider. Clearly it is not only Jerry whose perspective on Jean's suffering has been narrow and coldly superficial. Do not most spectators respond to the kidnapping proper as though it were a scene of exhilaratingly cruel farce? I do not mean to deny that there are ample cues for a comic enjoyment of the abduction. Nor are we misguided to seize upon these cues as a director-sanctioned release from the sober conventions of typical movie melodrama. The spikily comic surface seems to offer a pleasurably dangerous invitation to take our "fun" too far, past all reasonable limits, and only later, if at all, will we worry about the victim.
What are our recognitions during the early part of the kidnapping scene which launch our giddy slide toward moral chaos? First perhaps there is the banal television morning show which Jean watches while doing her knitting. Her way of watching instantly appears less knowing than ours; she is too credulous, perhaps, too eager to take the show's mock-hospitality and flattery that she is a valued part of things at face value. She is not alert in the fashion that a viewer with a cultivated sense of irony would be. Her lack of alertness seems to extend (or carry over) to her take on the black-hooded figure with a crowbar appearing outside the window on her deck. She reacts initially with bewilderment rather than fear. The intruder looks less efficient, less smooth in the accomplishment of his purposes than the felons in television movies do. When he leans forward to peer through the glass in order to ascertain whether anyone is at home, he could be performing a bizarre routine for Candid Camera or America's Funniest Home Videos. Jean's perplexity and delayed response to the threat are quite possibly due to her over-reliance on television images for her reality sense. Viewers searching for reasons to stay detached from her—or even to judge her blameworthy—might find something culpable in her confusion of television with the messy form of "real events." Jean's high-pitched voice, countrified accent, unflattering pink outfit, and slightly peculiar appearance (like everyone else in Fargo, she might be described as "funny-looking") have previously established her as a potentially burlesque figure, one whose credentials as a full-fledged victim are vaguely suspect. Moreover, the time we have spent thus far in the company of her attackers might well cause us to doubt whether they are competent or intelligent enough to carry out the projected crime.
This assortment of intuitions and reflex-judgments can be taken to authorize our detachment from Jean's distress for the duration of the scene. Though we are quite certain when we are briefly trapped in the bathroom with her that she is paralyzed with fright, it is not a requirement for us to enter her point-of-view so completely that we share her fear directly. We can almost borrow some of the sinister authority of her assailants because we have a fuller sense of them (as characters) than we do of her. Grimsrud's peevish search for "unguent" and the absurd spectacle of Jean flailing within the shower curtain before she topples downstairs confirm our impression that as ironists we gain the most inclusive mastery of the episode's content and procedures. When we return to the scene of the crime in silence, however, we must reckon with the fact that we have missed something crucial in our previous decision about how to experience it. In Jean's palpable absence we may belatedly find some preliminary awareness of Jean's actual suffering—and possibly as well a sense of how bereft she has been of emotional support when we were there with her. In order to hold onto our irony and the satisfactions it provided, we were obliged to freeze out Jean's moment-by-moment experience as a sentient victim.
The freedom to laugh at extremes of pain is usually won by increasing not only our emotional distance but our security that we have the right to that distance under these circumstances. We satisfy ourselves that the depiction of suffering is sufficiently unreal or exaggerated that we are not obliged to take it seriously, to believe in it—any more than we would foolishly worry over characters being maimed in a cartoon or slapstick comedy. We credit these latter habitual unfortunates with magical resilience and elasticity. Within moments they will spring back into action, with neither visible scars nor memories of what has just happened to them. If the appearance of reality is not so obviously faked or suspended (as in Fargo), one might make one's rationale for distance and laughter that one is not meant to be responsible for one's feelings (or lack of them) toward a character who does not automatically engage them. Why should one pretend to feel in the absence of feeling, especially in fictional situations? There is so much pressure to act the role of a feeling person in one's daily life—why shouldn't fiction confer a complete exemption from any undesirable entanglements? Isn't that one of its chief enticements and pleasures as a medium of escape? Notice how such reasoning depends on our shifting to an unironic insistence that we possess the ability to distinguish what is real from what is fictional. (At other times we derive benefit from claiming that such distinctions are naive.)
What if a "naive" viewer were to attempt to convince us of our responsibility by falling back on the film's straight-faced claim that it is a "true story"? When a work of fiction's close resemblance to a real-life tragedy is insisted upon, are we expected to be more apologetic or slightly more nervous about our careless disregard of Jean Lundegaard's harrowing ordeal? Or can the responsibility for an inappropriate response promptly be directed back to the filmmakers, who themselves must take the rap for any empathy shortfall? I think we would do well to be less complacent about our spectator freedom from the moral and emotional strains that accompany our ordinary "non-fictional" experience. I believe it is fair to say that one of fiction's many powers is a power deriving from heartlessness—and that spectators likewise have the capacity to turn heartless in the presence of certain "imagined situations" for much the same reasons that such a turn might be made in the normal course of a day.
A suspension of emotion typically occurs because we temporarily forget something that we may keenly, vividly know (be in touch with) on other occasions. Another way of putting this, which is perhaps more in line with the themes of Fargo that concern me, is that we are unable to see enough of what is presently going on. Not enough of what is there is visible to us, and the choices we make on what to focus on can naturally act as a "blind" for equally obvious, possibly more significant things. To connect strongly with Jean's agony in the very midst of our laughter is to suddenly remember how she is present—both to herself and to her crisis. Whatever help irony can be in showing us how to hold more than one attitude or idea at a time, it can find itself helpless when faced with the task of containing an immoderate surge of fellow-feeling. It is good for irony to feel chastened and chased by a force that it cannot comfortably integrate. When irony acknowledges its insufficiency, it is not a case of it being vanquished; it is more a matter of irony being temporarily relieved of its duties. A spectator making unexpected contact with Jean—fully seeing her—may have the sense of "letting more life in" to a situation whose too far advanced freedom from the normal range of sympathies is getting stifling.
Sometimes the laughter with the greatest power to reveal and cleanse is the laughter we wish to repudiate. We discover what is missing (or denied) by the response of laughter and try to bring it into play, just moments too late for it to save the situation. Laughter that ties us to the mess characters are making gives us a guilty share in the business of making things worse than they need to be. That is, we become "secret sharers" in heartless behavior. The fact of our laughter seems to drive the transgressor further, giving him permission to take that final ugly step. And then we see where the final step has brought us, and we inwardly draw back from it.
So much that we call irony is a complex compromise with the exorbitant demands to feel that life makes on us. One of the limitations of being human is that it is impossible to feel consistently what we should be feeling, or to easily widen the territory of our feeling to include all of the worthy new sufferers that come to our attention. Irony is a place to go for some necessary relief from the unceasing evidence of our deficient responsiveness. It can make hollowness bearable by knowing it is there and providing a free space to comment on it, from the position of an outside observer, as it were. The danger (and temptation) of irony comes when one imagines that the outside position it offers is superior to the internal one that one has been forced to vacate. Irony can convince itself that hollowness has somehow been transcended in favor of something large and difficult and beautifully self-sufficient. Frequently hollowness has simply donned an elaborate mask and fallen in love with it; one is inclined to forget that the mask is a simpler, more manageable burden than an acknowledged dearth of feeling. Irony judges those who seem to spend more time inside their actions and responses unsophisticated, by virtue of that fact. The person who takes her "rootedness", say, for granted, must be less knowledgeable than the ironist about how tenuous her relation to world and self really is. Irony can become so expert in its management of its tough-minded responses that it requires no reflection—or testing of its limits—at all. There is not, perhaps, much of a gap between the ironist's nominal freedom to play within any complex situation—trying out all the available attitudes—and Jerry Lundegaard trying out the various accents of grief before phoning his father-in-law.
A parallel scene later in the film shows Mike Yanagita attempting to cajole Marge to sleep with him "for old times' sake" by trying out various emotional poses. When flattery and mild boasting fail to lead her beyond good-humored politeness, he invents a wife who has died of cancer. He tells Marge how much he has always cared for her [Marge], while weeping openly, and embarrassedly, over his recent loss. One has the impression that he believes the tears he is shedding whether the death has happened or not. The obvious truth he inwardly appeals to as a cover for the expedient lie he is presently driven to tell is that he is a man who has suffered, and that he deserves more compassion and sexual consolation than he has ever managed to get in his difficult life. He is willing to run the risk of exposing his fake—and, at some other level, genuine—weakness to her, whatever the outcome. Is he far enough away from his feelings to count as an ironist? Marge is later informed by a friend that Mike has been struggling with "psychiatric problems."
The laughter that we endorse and participate in during the kidnapping scene is part of what wraps Jean in the shower curtain, so that she is no longer visible. For the rest of the film, in fact, she will either be covered by a blanket or wearing a dark hood without eyeholes that doesn't allow us to connect with anything beyond her body in agitated motion and the sounds that her fear presses out of her. When Jean is finally permitted to get out of her captors' car when they arrive at their cabin outpost, she responds to her slight increase in mobility by making a blind, panicked run for freedom, much like a frightened animal suddenly released from a cage. As she forges through the snow, her hands tied behind her back, she stumbles and falls repeatedly. Each time that I have viewed the film with a sizable audience, a certain number of spectators have reacted to Jean's staggers and stumbles with laughter—as if taking it on faith that the comedy of the kidnapping scene were still in progress. How would we go about demonstrating that laughter here is somehow more heartless—further removed from the desired degree of human awareness—than the laughter that greeted Jean's hysteria in the bathroom? The outline of something resembling other comic situations we have innocently taken pleasure in is certainly present here, and our laughter is one way of filling the outline in. Humans reduced to mechanisms, as Henri Bergson long ago pointed out, are close to the essence of the comic and how we ordinarily recognize it. When the Coens bring us back to Jean's kidnapper Carl's point-of-view, however, and have him relish this mechanical element by saying "Whoops" and then chuckling, they establish a painful equivalence between the sources of his laughter and ours. Could we be laughing at Jean for a different, better reason than he exhibits, and if so, what might it be?
Playfulness runs no risks if it operates in a medium where the lines between appropriate and inappropriate forms of response are securely drawn. The Coens realize that there is a laugh for someone's taking in Jean's clumsy footwork and fear-stricken lurching toward a non-existent escape route. They pointedly assign the laugh to Carl, but tactically delay the beginning of his overt amusement to see whether there are others in the audience who will seize the bait. The scene is constructed as a potential hood for the viewer, to induce a temporary blindness akin to Jean's. That is, we might replicate Jean's condition by stumbling into a pit of laughter we neither understand nor fully assent to. Like her we have lost sight of where we are. And we are out of control. If we have forgotten, for the moment, the nature of what we are looking at, comedy can readily take up the slack. It supplies a simple, immediate answer when we are unsure about what is expected of us. As we have noted elsewhere, de-familiarization (the process of making the familiar strange that underlies so many of the discoveries of art) repeatedly works against us in Fargo. Our desire to be on the side of cleverness rather than gauche naiveté lures us into making choices (of allegiance and moral attitude) that we may soon after come to regret and repudiate. Cleverness seems, at one level, exactly what is required of us if we are to be on the filmmakers' wavelength. This is emphatically not the push-button uplift world of Forrest Gump. And yet to get ahead of the characters in the way that cleverness sanctions is not finally to see our way clear in Fargo, to make connection with what is most impressively offered to us. For that connection to be achieved, we must learn to prefer waiting to arriving, and come to trust small feats of attentiveness (which demand patience, above all) more than the ironist's swift overview.
Carl Showalter and Jerry Lundegaard are not, in all likelihood, a match for most spectators in cleverness and cunning, and yet it is nonetheless true that they both place their complete faith in these attributes. They trust their ability to manipulate others and their knowledge of how to simulate attitudes that will work for them. They regard the notion of feeling anything directly as superfluous and debilitating. Leave that for the victims of their schemes. What happens when feeling manages, against the odds, to break through their defenses? When Carl's partner, Grimsrud, without any advance warning commits the first murder in Fargo, and the blasted head of a policeman slides past Carl's stunned face after leaving a slight spray of blood there, Carl takes a deep breath before softly saying: "Whoa . . . whoa, Daddy." For a few instants Carl surrenders any pretense that he is equal to what is going on. He has no ready-made response that is adequate for the extremity of Grimsrud's action—that can either contain it or render it intelligible to him. This is one death that he is obliged to see. It penetrates him, and reduces him for a small, but telling interval to a humane, vulnerable silence. The voice of self-interest—which must calculate how the killing will complicate his chances of staying clear of the law—has not yet had time to focus the situation. Carl is for now simply a man looking at a terrible act, and naively taking it in.
In the published screenplay of Fargo (though not in the finished film), the Coens indicate that the dead trooper's hat falls in Carl's lap before his body is thrown backward to the ground. Grimsrud quickly seizes the hat and throws it out the car window after him. The hat's presence on Carlperson—its fugitive contact with him—nicely measures the time of his real knowing: his full openness to an experience he has no name for. How far away is Carl's "Whoa" from his later "Whoops" after Jean's collapse in the snow by the cabin? In the second instance Carl feels in a much more secure position. He would possibly describe his state of mind as controlled and on top of things. He feels free enough to indulge himself in a bit of merriment at Jean's expense. After all, what harm does it do? How does his laughter change anything?
In a very short time Carl will be sealed up in a hood more blinding than the one that he has forced on Jean. He will lose himself in a rage without limits, which erases any difference he might have claimed separated his own sense of the world from Grimsrud's. When Grimsrud commits three murders in as many minutes with brutal, nerveless efficiency, the viewer might well be inclined to say that Carl is "out of his depth" with such a savage partner. Carl is a small-time crook who exhibits, by comparison with Grimsrud, a sociable nature, normal appetites, a capacity for acknowledging genuine horror, and a desire to preserve, as much as possible, balance and even civility. His warning to Jean in the back seat just as his car is stopped by the policeman seems to sum up his belief that he can remain, in the midst of crisis, a controlled individual, one mindful of others' feelings: "Let's keep still back there, lady, or we're gonna have to, ya know, to shoot you." The search for a considerate euphemism for the word " at this juncture (which occurs during the pause at "ya know") implies that Carl regrets having to resort to threats and that the threat he makes now is in all probability an empty one, since he has no intention of doing her serious injury. His use of the word "lady" links him to criminals of an earlier, "simpler" time. When Carl eventually falls into his rage, however, a rage from which he never emerges, all of the civilizing restraints we have observed at work in him simply dissolve. He is at one with his fury, like a figure in allegory—and he is lost to any dimensions in the world confronting him that do not confirm or reinforce it.
One of Carl's last actions in the film is to bury close to a million dollars near a fence on an isolated stretch of highway. The money, which is his guarantee of future freedom and protection, is at this point expressive of everything decent or salvageable in him that he has abandoned in order to get himself here. He imagines that the money, like his more sensibly proportioned former life, will be waiting for him to return to when the time is right. He won't have much difficulty finding it because he has carefully marked the spot with a small snow scraper from his car. We look at the place where his treasure lies buried and then try, with him, to memorize its whereabouts. On either side of it a "regular line of identical fence posts stretches away against unblemished white." It is one of those instances where the saving sense of difference, of distinctions that will hold and lead one back home to one's real purpose, have been undone by a white emptiness that extends as far as the eye can see. The landscape's features are reduced to endless self-repetition. Carl is satisfied that as long as others fail to notice the little signpost he has left behind, he has nothing to worry about. Though the marker is all but invisible even when he stands near it, he can't fail to recover it upon his return. He will find the money, he dazedly reasons, because it has cost him so much pain to get it. Some law of compensation must be at work. Carl has faith that his vision is still sufficiently reliable to guide him to what belongs to him. His eyes are a "currency," in Jean-Dominique Bauby's phrase, "strong enough to buy [his] freedom back."
Jerry Lundegaard has a similar defining moment with a snowscraper earlier in the film. We begin our approach to him with a high-angle view of what at first might be mistaken for an abstract painting with a predominantly white background. As our vision adjusts to identify another snow environment, this time an office building's parking lot, a tiny solitary figure in an otherwise motionless frame makes his way, like a persevering insect, through a pattern of boxed trees to the only car in sight. As we cut to ground level, Jerry and the distress that weighs him down suddenly snap into focus and regain their customary human-scale force. Jerry has just been humiliated by his father-in-law, Wade, who has taken one of Jerry's more intelligent money-making schemes out of his hands, and pointedly reminded him that a man without ready capital can make nothing of consequence happen. Jerry does not doubt the truth of Wade's gospel; he has, in fact, never thought otherwise.
When Jerry gets to his car, he discovers that the windows have frozen over in his absence and require scraping. As he distractedly sets about performing this familiar, irksome task, he meets unusually stiff resistance from the crust of ice settled on his windshield. Without warning all the frustrations accumulated in him as a result of his defeats and general floundering erupt in a frenzy of ineffectual scraping, which in turn leads to an explosion of resentment. Once his violent fit has passed, however, the frozen windshield remains to be dealt with. There is no escaping the task at hand, if he desires to have adequate visibility for the drive home. He steps aside from the feelings that block the performance of his necessary work, and resumes, more methodically and patiently, his scraping. Jerry's efforts here do not, unfortunately, address the related visibility problems that cause his wife and son to be so completely hidden to him. Jerry's car is unyielding in its demands that one immediately attend to anything that will obstruct a clear view. There is no equivalently stern directive issued to the soul's gaze, when it clouds over. It is odd how many things can slip wholly out of sight without calling attention to the fact that they have gone missing. One's ability to move ahead in the face of an ever-more barren, de-populated visual field, without the requirement of alarm, is remarkable.
Let us go back for another glimpse at Carl hammering on his snowy television set, praying for a signal that will "plug" him into something that will assuage the fear of isolation. As if in answer to his appeal, the snowy screen is replaced with a clear one, where in extreme close-up a bark beetle is shown struggling to carry a worm to its nest. It may take us a few moments to figure out that we are watching an old, black-and-white television nature documentary, narrated by one of those bland, paternalistic voices that used to reassure us that all of nature's mysteries will gratefully surrender to the probing gaze of scientific authority. The signal that Carl has received, at first glance, seems to parallel his plight with the puny, futile exertions of an ephemera from the dregs of nature's kingdom. We are teased once again toward making an ironic judgment at a character's expense that he is too naive to make (or grasp) himself. We are meant to be startled, I think, by the additional revelation that it is not any longer Carl's television we are looking at, but Marge and Norm Gunderson's. It is late in the evening, and only Marge is still awake to watch the show from her bed. Her husband is asleep beside her. Marge's perspective on the program is not distanced in the way that our first take on it encouraged ours to be. What holds her interest, in spite of her sleepiness, is the fact that the bark beetle is a mother, as Marge (with luck) will in just two more months be as well. She is perhaps struck by the bark beetle's efforts on behalf of her offspring, and the imposing struggle she undergoes, without hesitation, in order to feed them. This is the true part of the story, as she sees it, which doesn't need to be pried loose from the annoyingly official voice of the out-of-date narrator.
Marge doesn't require any reassurance about her status as a human mother in some indispensable hierarchy where the insect must occupy a lesser, lower place. If she were to dwell at all on the link between mothers, she would no doubt feel heartened rather than devalued by their mutual challenge. Truth, as Hannah Arendt often argued, is "not a result that comes at the end of a thought-process." On the contrary, truth "is always the beginning of thought; thinking is always result-less." Marge Gunderson suggests through her quality of receptiveness how we might return to a useful point of beginning in order to re-acquaint ourselves with truth. Perhaps her respect for truth, no matter how credulous, makes us curious about what it might mean once again to take the word seriously. Marge invariably starts with something small, as other characters for a variety of reasons forget to do, and demonstrates what a simple noting of attributes can bring to light in the way of value and satisfaction. One of her final observations to Norm is that his mallard painting—which has been chosen to appear on a new three-cent postage stamp rather than on a twenty-nine cent stamp, as he had hoped—will not be lost from view because, as he fears, people "don't much use the three-cent." She reminds him that the price of stamps is regularly raised, and because of that, people always "need the little stamps" to make up the difference. Marge's offhand tribute to the seeming throwaway stamp is, quite simply, satisfying—and not least as a way around the familiar taunt of the ingrained skeptic: "how little are you willing to settle for?"
Equally characteristic of Marge is her ability to keep things that are best left small from taking on a disproportionate weight and significance. The sort of small details that she is skilled at overlooking are behavioral transgressions and peculiarities that might seem to call for comment or rebuke or at times just private amusement. Perhaps Marge's most complex, beautifully tactful non-recognition of a potentially troubling offense occurs during her meeting with Mike Yanagita in the hotel bar. Early in their conversation, Mike decides to make Marge aware of his romantic intentions by moving from his side of the booth to hers and, while drawing very close, placing his arm behind her. Marge promptly suggests that she would "prefer" him to be sitting across from her. Mike, sensing that he may have distressed her, returns to his original seat and offers a sheepish apology. Marge then convincingly deflects his worry that she will hold his out-of-line conduct against him. She tells Mike, with no hint of reproach, that it is easier to converse with him if he is facing her, and, as a bonus courtesy, demonstrates how otherwise she would have to strain her neck to look at him. Marge betrays not the slightest sign of discomfort or injured feelings either to Mike or the viewer at any point in this exchange. She is so completely unreadable, in fact, that one could almost make a case that Mike's impertinence has escaped her notice. Here is an instance where Marge's reliably open demeanor takes us by surprise by becoming a perfect mask—designed to allow a former friend to save face. Marge demonstrates that she can be as resourceful as Jerry Lundegaard in making her expression a good hiding place, though the only advantage she hopes to gain is a preservation of mutual good will. Marge's choice, in most situations, to refrain from calling others to account for their petty misconduct places her at the furthest possible remove from Wade Gustafson, Jerry's father-in-law, who is Fargo's chief specialist in self-righteous browbeating. Wade consistently seizes on small infractions and bits of foolishness as a means of making those "guilty" of them feel small in relation to him. His arrogant scorekeeping sustains his large sense of himself as a man invariably in the right and entitled to all available privileges. (Even Jerry's deviousness and by-reflex obsequiousness acquire a certain emotional appeal—or at least greater acceptability—when juxtaposed with Wade's compulsive belittling.)
(Top) Thugs Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) await their "job" contract. (Bottom) Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) listens skeptically to son-in-law Jerry's (William H. Macy) investment idea.
Even as he places himself in extreme danger, Wade can't get past the idea of teaching yet another good-for-nothing a lesson. The viewer finds it next to impossible to form an image of Wade as an old man running a terrible risk out of love for his daughter. The implacable businessman is comically incapable of envisioning an outcome that will not ratify the correctness of his position. Chance and unforeseeable circumstances operate for lesser men; Wade is made safe by his knowing, here as always, that he is in the right.
When an enraged Carl, fresh from a merciless, "undeserved" thrashing at the hands of Shep Proudfoot, confronts the heroically puffed-up Wade on the parking ramp, he watches dumbfounded as a "pathetic geezer" launches into his pre-rehearsed tough guy routine. It is suddenly Wade's turn to be reduced, in an instant, to smallness. Far from being properly intimidated by his barked commands, Carl announces that this elderly stand-in for Jerry is no more than "a fuckin' joke," one which he hasn't the patience to laugh at. Wade is lumped together for Carl with the parking lot attendants, stupid accomplices, and "deaf," slow-service waiters that he has had to put up with since embarking on his miserable stint as a kidnapper. Wade is not differentiated, in fact, from any of the dozens of small irritants that have made Carl's job, in his view, so needlessly complicated and unpleasant. Wade's unexpected appearance is just one frustration too many, and he is simply not worth arguing with.
Wade is movingly softened, for the first time in the film, as he is summarily stripped of status and then gunned down by a fed-up, distracted thug. He registers his astonishment at being shot in the gut with a peculiar half-smile, looking for a moment as though he were back in childhood, having to appease a grown-up he has made too angry through some inadvertent wrongdoing. Collapsing to the pavement, Wade clutches at the bullet hole in his parka from which tiny feathers rather than blood surprisingly flow. No sooner does he settle into his final role as an ill-prepared old timer who has stumbled, touchingly, into death than it is Carl's turn, once again, to be made small. Reaching for Wade's briefcase, Carl casts a last contemptuous glance at the "fucking imbecile" who thought he could make trouble for him, and in so doing sees the dying man recover enough presence of mind to shoot him in the jaw. Carl echoes Wade's brief regression to a childlike state; his blood-smeared face is both frightening and amusingly suggestive of a prodigious nosebleed.
How often, especially in the late scenes of Fargo, characters' assured bids for power and for the high visual definition (icon status) that comes from being at one with a "hard" persona, result in a radical diminishment of capacity. When we witness extravagant gestures collapse in the effort to magnify the personal, or to show that the personal indeed has some force, some majestic vigor, we are returned to the beginning of Fargo: the long, ironic view. The inhuman, unvarying terrain of the opening snowstorm reasserts itself, and imparts a quality of mirage to all human striving. One figure after another makes his final mark, the only one that matters, as a spray of blood in the snow. In the words of Edmond Jabès, "And in that unbroken sameness of sky and [snow], you're nothing, absolutely nothing."
When Marge, in the closing scene of the film, is discovered where we originally encountered her, in her cozy bedroom sanctuary with Norm, how satisfactorily does this setting (and the couple in it) work as a reply to the cumulative grisliness and comic degradation that have come before? Can we not almost hear the dreadful sound of the woodchipper or Jerry's animal scream upon being apprehended continuing faintly in the distance? And are we not, at least fleetingly, reminded of other ironic, "return to normal" film endings—chiefly, perhaps, BlueVelvet's overlit kitchen in a suburban Lumberton bungalow, whose complacent occupants are surveyed by an artificial robin on a tree branch, with an ugly insect in its beak? There is, at present, something deeply suspect about closing a serious film with images of comfort and repose in the realm of middle-class domesticity. Tranquillity by fiat automatically sets us on edge, and encourages ironic dismissal. To be at rest, after all, is not to be on the alert; and an intimacy that dispenses with sophistication and the need to be, in any telling way, remarkable, appears, surely, too straightforward, too obvious, when regarded as a point of closure for such an intricate film. The word "obvious" has its own enigmatic dimension, however, having not entirely shed its original meaning of "blocking the path" to something. Are Marge and Norm, huddled in bed together as they prepare for sleep, obscuring our view of more essential matters, or is our impatient itch to get past the mundane obvious that they stand for blocking our path to an available, but not simple, meaning?
Marge's last words to Norm are a repetition of his just offered phrase, "two more months." The couple are thinking about the small space of time that they must wait before their baby arrives and makes everything in their settled life together different. Perhaps the Coens intend for us to recall here the film's other child, the all-but-forgotten Scotty, who has suffered in swift, incomprehensible succession, the loss of his entire family. His terrible luck—and the concealed agony of his present, "exposed" situation—seem to put pressure on the whole idea of good fortune, and on Marge and Norm's trust (or hope) that their child will be spared undue affliction. If we remember to think about Scotty, is there still something worth dwelling on in this ordinary sight of a couple drawing close, watching television in bed, and trying to catch a glimpse of their future? What details help us focus the scene, before the image passes away?
Fargo is a film which reminds us, continually, of how easy and even likely it is for human beings to remain disconnected from each other, to squander the majority of chances they have to make the time they spend together count—count as time present, because of what is sensed or shared or made known. Marge and Norm's quiet, "small change" encounter may do no more than remind us what genuine human connection looks like, but that is perhaps not a negligible feat, if connection is so hard to come by in the world "out there." They provide a measure of solace, animal warmth, and tangible attentiveness to each other late at night; they are guiding each other to rest, and though neither is complaining about the strains of the day they've been through, they are mutually alleviating strain by talk that fits and suits them. Against the immense power of emptiness that Fargo often makes us feel is placed the low-level, heartbeat power of effective companionship. And though, as Thomas Browne argued in The Garden ofCyrus, "the night of time far surpasseth the day," before daylight sense goes under we might reasonably consider this pair's unequivocal satisfaction at being together "for now" as improbable and miraculous as anything larger that could be revealed to us.
In one of his recent stories, "The Womanizer," Richard Ford has a character worry at considerable length whether now is the time to "take a true reading" of his life: "when the tide was out and everything exposed—including himself—as it really, truly was. There was the real life, and he wasn't deluded about it." Ford has alerted us to be on our guard about this character's ability to arrive at a true reading, or recognize the moment (if there ever is one) when a true reading can be taken. He is, in short, ironic about his character's sense of himself within the situation, without using irony to secure a writerly vantage point that is morally outside the fray, in a better position to see what's what. A bit later the character gets closer to his own truth as he relinquishes the notion of a definitive true reading. In its place he posits the "crucial linkages of a good life," which "he knew were small and subtle and in many ways just lucky things that you hardly ever noticed" (my emphasis). Marge's "naiveté," which Fargo, surprisingly, does not overturn or complicate, comes from a just appreciation of obvious, daily linkages, and from the good fortune, unaffected by the prevailing winds of irony, to notice them.
What Does This Movie Mean? The Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” (1996)
Here is another entry in my amateur critic movie interpretation series. This is Fargo; if you are reading a blog entry interpreting it, I assume you’ve seen it — so I won’t summarize the plot. Let’s just dive right in.
”A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere”: the backdrop
Before you yell at me, I concede I’ve never been to Minnesota. I don’t know whether the Coens are being fair to its residents or the time period in which Fargo is set. I cannot argue about the factual accuracy of the picture they paint. I can only talk about what’s on the screen in front of me. Setting the issue of accuracy aside, it is clear that the ways and customs of provincial society get absolutely savaged in Fargo. The cultural landscape of Fargo — all sports, fast food and mall music — is as barren and dreary as the frozen, snowy expanse where the story takes place.
It is remarkable how often the movie depicts people eating — nay, devouring burgers or the sloppy contents of buffet plates, piled sky-high with deep-fried and/or gravy-smothered something-or-other. In fact, if you watch carefully, food is referenced in almost every scene in Fargo — whether in people literally stuffing their maw, or talking with their mouths full, or cooking, or meeting in kitchens or diners, or talking about eating, or, in the case of Stan Grossman, just chewing, his gaze frozen, all to the sound of soulless elevator music. In a tiny detail that strikes me as, frankly, particularly gross, Norm eats potato chips in bed (in front of the TV) and falls asleep clutching the bag. Like the accents, the process of eating is exaggerated in Fargo to the level of the grotesque. People open their mouths so wide to shovel it in, and masticate with such an impressive range of motion, it makes you wonder how they manage to avoid dislocating their jaws. It is a process of joyless, reflexive overconsumption, as if the characters are trying to fill a gaping void in their souls with cheap processed crap.
Food is not the only example of cheap mass-produced culture in Fargo. Almost everyone seems to be driving the same car. China figurines are everywhere.
But what if you want more out of life? Why, there are slightly “classier” versions of the same rubbish available for you. The place at the Radisson is “pretty good” — cuisine de l’hotel and all that — which is to say, you take one look at its heavily varnished wood paneling and one listen to its background piano, and you know this is the best place in town to get mediocre steak. Want to catch a slice of performing arts? No complaints with Jose Feliciano, the aging king of “adult contemporary” kitsch. Want to decorate your office with something a little more sophisticated than your wife’s ridiculous china pigs? Golfing figurines is where it’s at — golf is a rich man’s game, after all. Or, alternatively, prints of nature scenes that are undoubtedly marketed as “masculine” to people with the artistic sensibilities of a drill sergeant.
Carl Showalter is a curious tragicomic character, whose failure to rise above the inevitable brutality of his trade as a kind of old-timey Gentleman Outlaw is tightly bound to the failure of his repeated attempts to escape this cultural wasteland. True, his ideas about finer things in life are those of a bumpkin, but you’ve got to give him points for trying. And yet, the world steadily refuses to cooperate in his attempts at refinement. He tries to engage his partner in a conversation about architectural trivia, but Gaer blows him off. He wants to go to a proper steakhouse, but Gaer badgers him into going to a truck stop instead — a compromise between Carl’s preference for steak and Gaer’s child-like affinity for pancakes (and, to get Gaer to meet him even half-way, Carl has to tempt him with pussy). He tries to resolve the traffic stop in Brainerd with a gentlemen’s agreement, but the conflict degenerates into a bloodbath. He takes an escort — immaculately coiffed and dressed in a dark, elegant evening gown, doubtless at his specification — to a concert catered with champagne at an upscale hotel; but the woman’s demeanor is vulgar, and her condescending dirty talk later, when the two are having sex, is decidedly unerotic. And as if all this wasn’t bad enough, Carl’s sincere, if ill-conceived, quest for gourmet Spam ends with a vicious beating and abject humiliation at the hands of Shep Proudfoot. Scene by scene, Carl is stripped of whatever humanity he has until he turns into a raging killer.
All this puts in sharp relief Marge’s musing about “a little money”. She may not be sophisticated herself, but she grasps the inutility of riches in the fictional world she inhabits. For what’s there to buy in Fargo except more slop, more Oldsmobiles and more tchotchkes?
We refuse to see things that make us uncomfortable.
Science tells us that much of what we think we see is filled in from memory and conforms to expectations — i.e. filters out the unusual or the unexpected.
This is a fitting metaphor for what’s going on in Fargo. The movie is full of telescoping misdirection, which can only be appreciated on multiple viewings. It forces us to perceive characters and events a certain way, consistent with cultural biases. And inasmuch as virtually all of Coens’ movies are, at least to some extent, exercises in meta-cinema, the beliefs of many of even the movie’s fans demonstrate just how hard it is to let go of one’s biases in favor of evidence. That’s the genius of Fargo. That’s why the movie precedes its parade of fakes — an ersatz family man, an ersatz Sherlock, hackwork masquerading as art — with the false assertion that the plot is based on a true story; moreover: the story is told exactly as it happened (out of respect for the victims, no less). This initial lie lays the foundation for future deception: it steers the viewer towards taking what we are shown at face value and implicitly trusting the characters.
I think what a lot of movies tell us, deep down, is that the only way to see the truth clearly is to peel away the noise, to strip down the story to its very basics. Jerry Lundergaard is a failed businessman who defrauds a bank and arranges to have his own wife kidnapped for ransom. And yet, despite the undeniable fact that he is a dishonest and violent man (albeit one who prefers to have other people get their hands dirty), a man without conscience or empathy, a man whose quaintly soft manner peppered with “heck’s” and “geez’s” barely masks the horror within, the tendency to take Jerry at his word on his intentions — that he is merely trying to finance a deal that will work out really well for Jean and Scotty — is very strong. This is a testament to the Coens’ brilliance as storytellers, but it also says something about the way we process information before us. We like to think of evil as something overtly malevolent, something quite outside ourselves, something that announces its nature and intentions explicitly, something that does not resemble us, least of all an idealized version of us. As a result, we often refuse to see it, distracted by all the hum of ordinariness, familiarity and superficial harmlessness.
Marge Gunderson’s character arc represents a fine example of precisely this kind of misdirection by the Coens. The Gundersons are basically good people, so there is temptation to take that to mean that everything we are shown about them is a positive. Critics and commentators also like to add that they are simple people, but what the Coens often tell us, not just in this movie, but in others as well, is that simplicity is overrated. I’ll get Norm out of the way first. He is a folk artist, and from the brief glimpses, both visual and spoken, his thing seems to be ducks. Given the profusion of tacky statuettes in the movie, this raises a red flag: his creations are part of that dreary cultural landscape I described earlier, a landscape decorated with kitschy, unimaginative art. The selection of his mallard painting for a postage stamp seems at first like an affirmation of his artistic ability, but in fact, it is yet another exercise in misdirection. What it signifies in context is the larger society’s embrace of the bland, repetitive and predictable. (At this point I’ll concede that artistic taste is subjective, etc. and won’t say anything more about Norm’s art. As you can probably guess, it’s not my cup of tea.)
But what about Marge — is she a good detective? From the beginning of her arc, the movie introduces one misleading clue upon another to make us think that. She heroically braves the cold to examine a crime scene while “everybody” stays comfortably indoors. She also reconstructs the crime perfectly and corrects her sergeant’s shoddy reasoning. So, it would seem like she’s our Brilliant Detective, no? A strong, common-sensical woman grounded in reason and professionalism?
Alas, Marge’s pregnancy distills her shortcomings as a sleuth. Pregnancy is a powerful symbol in fiction — of hope, sometimes, but mostly of burdens and (as yet) unrealized aspirations. (“Carrying quite a load,” Marge herself remarks several times.) For me, this character’s pregnancy has always been a metaphor for yet another metaphor, how the wheels of justice grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine. But they grind slowly. Mostly, they just grind slowly.
Marge is a smart woman with an honest job that she takes seriously, and she does what is expected of her professionally. But, she is neither particularly brilliant nor does she possess the sense of urgency that would make her a hero capable of saving lives. At the scene of the murders, Marge remarks on the cold brutality of the crime, but then spends much of the movie lumbering about in no particular hurry to catch the perpetrators. She only apprehends Gaer thanks to a fortuitous tip that comes out of the blue. The chain reaction of mass murder resolves not because of her investigation, but because the violent enterprise has exhausted itself.
Marge’s confrontation with Jerry at the end of the movie is structured as a cathartic moment, when we are supposed to applaud her brilliant detective skills. But in fact, when she tells him the reason for doubting him — the perpetrators were driving a car with dealer plates, and they called someone who works at Jerry’s dealership — she says nothing that she didn’t know the first time she spoke to him. Why didn’t she doubt the coincidence then? Didn’t she think then it was weird how Jerry was certain no cars had gone missing, without checking his inventory?
Marge’s naivete — her very much-touted simplicity, her folksy good-naturedness translating into a tendency to trust — have tragic consequences. Had Marge put Jerry’s feet to the fire the first time she came to his office, Wade Gustafson, the parking lot attendant, Carl Showalter, maybe even Jean would have been alive.
But to get back to the subject of Jerry’s true intentions — which are, specifically, to get together as much money as possible and then blow town. To back up a little, there is absolutely no earthly reason to believe anything that Jerry tells anyone. He lies to GMAC to get them to loan him money, he lies to his accomplices about the amount of the ransom; he lies to his customers about the deals they are getting; he may very well be lying to Wade to get him to cough up cash. The deal in Wayzata is about as real as the vehicles on which Jerry has obtained financing. Here is how we know this:
Jerry has conned GMAC out of $320K by borrowing on vehicles that do not exist. Not that it was much of a con, really — under any circumstances, GMAC would seek to verify the vehicle identification numbers within weeks of dispensing the money. Even if all of Jerry’s schemes went according to plan, he would have, at most, another month or so before GMAC hit the dealership with a lawsuit, perhaps even a criminal complaint. No parking lot deal, no matter how lucrative, would generate cash fast enough for Jerry to give the money back to GMAC before that happened. And even if he could, somehow, give back the money, that would not resolve the issue of him having borrowed it under false pretenses in the first place.
This tells us Jerry’s real plan, from the very beginning, is to flee. A million from Wade (minus some change), plus a few hundred thousand from GMAC would have set him up nicely somewhere tropical. There are no attenuating circumstances, no good intentions underneath Jerry schlemiel-ish appearance and mannerisms. He is a ruthless conman ready to ruin as many lives as necessary in order to start a new life in the shade of some palm trees, unburdened by any obligations. Of course, he is incompetent, too, but that fits in only too well with the film’s procession of mediocrities.
The realization that the Wayzata deal does not exist actually makes the ending of the scene in Wade’s office much more desperate and ominous for Jerry than it would seem at first glance. It’s not that Wade and Stan are going to poach his deal. The scary part is that there is no deal to poach, and now that Jerry has himself told them that it’s important to move quickly, it would only be a day or so before Wade learned that Jerry had fabricated the whole thing. (So Jean’s kidnapping actually provided a stay of execution.)
There are a couple more neat details here. At the very beginning, when Jerry walks into the bar in Fargo and we see him for the first time, you can hear a snippet of a country song, specifically these words:
And keep your retirement and your so-called security.
Big city, turn me loose and set me free.
Now, I’m very bad with pop culture references, and I know almost nothing about country music. But I got curious, so I googled the song. It’s Merle Haggard’s “Big City”, and here is the first stanza:
I’m tired of this dirty old city
Entirely too much work and never enough play
And I’m tired of these dirty old sidewalks
Think I’ll walk off my steady job today.
Also, the song playing on the radio at the dealership shop, and as Gaer and Carl are driving to the Twin Cities, is “These Boots are Made for Walking”.
The case against Jerry Lundergaard: Part II
In discussing Fargo with other Coens afficionados, I’ve often had it pointed out to me that I am being too hard on Jerry. The consensus, as I perceive it, is that Jerry is a well-meaning, though inept, businessman, tired of plodding along in his father-in-law’s shadow and led astray by society’s obsession with the pursuit of wealth. I’ve been told that I make assumptions of Jerry’s monstrosity without there being any facts in evidence. So in anticipation of protests, I will lay the evidence out before you.
Let’s start with the very first scene, the one that takes place in Fargo. What’s striking about that scene is that Jerry never discusses the details of Jean’s captivity with the goons he’s hired to kidnap her. Keep in mind, these are criminals retained through another criminal — and he’s tasked them with performing a violent crime. Sure, it’s understood that Jean isn’t to be killed, but don’t you think it would be important for Jerry to stress that he doesn’t want her hurt? That perhaps it’s important to impress upon these brutal men that she shouldn’t be kept for days on end with her hands tied behind her back and a hood over her head, and that she shouldn’t be terrorized? What, did he just assume these were nice kidnappers? Perhaps these details had been worked out with Shep — but given that Shep isn’t actually the one doing the kidnapping, I would think that a half-way decent human being (assuming a half-way decent human being would arrange to have his wife grabbed, bound, and held captive) would go over the details of her safety.
Then there is the scene right after Jean’s kidnapping, when Jerry is rehearsing his “panicked” phone call to Wade. It’s a chilling scene, because it demonstrates just how collected Jerry’s mind is, amid all the signs of a violent struggle. You can tell from his dry runs how meticulously he takes various factors into account, unfazed by any concern that Jean is probably in the back of a getaway car, beaten, suffocating and terrified. Instead, he is focused on impressing Wade: he wants to sound devastated but manly, worried but determined to act, shaken but still in control. And once he’s settled on the appropriate combination of words and the right tone, he calls Wade’s receptionist and coolly, matter-of-factly asks to speak with his father-in-law.
Incidentally, notice the cookie jar and statuettes in the background the whole time — the laughing pigs. The pigs are laughing at Jerry, and the pig ARE Jerry. We also see the large pig-shaped figurine in a scene taking place earlier that day, when Wade invites his son-in-law to discuss the Wayzata deal. There is a Jewish metaphor going on here: Jerry and his various deals aren’t “kosher”.
Then you have the diner scene in which Jerry bizarrely refers to his wife’s kidnapping and ransom as “my deal” — a clear indication that Jean’s value to Jerry is purely economical. She is a cash cow (it would be neat if there was a cow figurine in Fargo somewhere, but I haven’t noticed one; if you have, let me know) — nothing more.
Then, when things start going wrong, when Jerry learns that Carl and Gaer have actually killed people, Jerry does not go to the police — even though Jean’s life is clearly in danger at this point. Sure, he is understandably scared of the consequences, but this just tells you that he is more concerned about his own freedom and the “deal” going through than he is about Jean’s safety or his son’s well-being.
Furthermore, despite his protestations of being a devoted family man, Jerry always seems detached from his wife and son. After the kidnapping, he does not seem concerned for how devastated Scotty is — notice, by the way, how Scotty, the “typical” blasé teenager, is the one actually panicked about what the kidnappers may be doing to his mother. Jerry only seeks to assuage Scotty’s fears so as to make sure he does not tell anyone what has happened.
All this points to Jerry being a stone-cold killer and one of the most monstrous characters ever created on film. But boy, does he put on a convincing front.
”Blood has been shed, Jerry.”
On a related note, I’ve previously characterized Jerry Lundegaard as a violent man. It is true, of course, we never actually see him get personally violent, and he acts horrified and confused when Carl tells him about the murders in Brainerd. The fact remains, however, that he hired Carl and Gaer to commit an act of violence. He may not have foreseen the Brainerd murders per se, but — those murders happened precisely because Carl and Gaer were in the middle of committing a violent crime when the state trooper pulled them over.
Jerry’s reaction, therefore, is highly disingenuous. I will not go so far as to say that the Coens are trying to make a statement about America’s foreign policy — which is often violent, ostensibly for good, but in practice, often for ill — and the American public’s often quaint reaction to the inevitable consequences of that violence. Still, Fargo underscores that Jerry indeed charges Carl and Gaer with an impossible task — to engage in violence without anyone getting hurt — and the hypocrisy implicit in the outsourcing of violence to “professionals”, thereby distancing oneself from the whole mess while simultaneously being its epicenter and the intended main beneficiary.
The whole Mike Yanagita subplot
This one has caused viewers plenty of consternation. At first glance, the subplot is a complete digression, unrelated to the main story. So why go off on such a lengthy tangent? It’s to make fun of Asians, isn’t it?
Well, no. The subplot presents a theme-within-a-theme, if you will. As the movie mirrors society’s interplay between stereotyping and expectations, so Mike Yanagita mirrors the movie’s. Asian men are often stereotyped as studious, inoffensive, naive, even effeminate (which is especially curious, given the popularity of martial arts flicks — but this is a discussion for another day). Mike Yanagita feeds Marge a hefty serving of saccharine maudliness, and she doesn’t realize it’s the plot outline of “Love Story”. A young married couple, the wife bravely fighting a hopeless fight against a terminal disease, (leukemia both in “Love Story” and in Mike’s story) her devoted, suffering husband at her side. This is another jab at pop culture: we love this treacle as much as we love our fast food; we lap it up. And so does Marge, indeed, lap it up without questioning — and is shocked to learn the next day that it is a complete fabrication, and that the milquetoast Mike Yanagita is a mentally disturbed liar living with his parents. This debacle then makes her reconsider her initial impression of another seemingly innocuous family man — Jerry Lundegaard — and finally sets her investigation on the right track.
There is something else at work here, which is not necessarily related to the movie’s main themes, but nevertheless gives it additional depth. The Gundersons represent a reversal of traditional gender roles — and indeed, the gender roles established in the Lundegaard household — with the husband staying at home and the wife making her way out in the world. But there is another way in which Marge assumes the traditional male role, namely in her willingness to engage in just a little bit of mischief while on a business trip. I am not saying she’s an adulteress — her little rendez-vous is mostly harmless, and she decisively rejects Mike the second he tries to angle for physical affection — but the sequence of events strongly suggests she is the one who set up the meeting, and she primps herself up for it. In other words, though she may not actually jump into bed with other men, she’s not averse to a little extra-marital flirtation while outside the small-town environment where everyone knows her. “Big city turn me loose and set me free” indeed.
”A deal is a deal”: A stray observation
Whether you agree or disagree with their views on the subject, pretty much every Coen film contains a critique of capitalism — which is to say, not necessarily the economic system itself, but the attendant culture that seems to reduce every human interaction to economic terms. (This is symbolized with a special poignancy in Anton Chugurh’s infamous coin toss in No Country for Old Men).
Fargo goes even further than that, however, in registering the disconnect between how market players act and what they expect of others in the market. The Efficient Market, where all benefit by acting selfishly, is an illusion precisely because the model presumes that it’s always in one’s selfish interest to play by the rules. But in a cold Randian world, what is honesty if not a weakness almost as bad as altruism?
So Jerry sells a car to some guy in a stupid sweater. When the customer shows up at the dealership with his checkbook, Jerry unexpectedly ups the (previously agreed-upon) price on account of some anti-rust sealant that the customer had specifically told him he didn’t want.
“You are a bald-faced liar, Mr. Lundegaard,” says the irate customer, then blinks several times to work up the courage to drop an f-bomb. “A f-fucking liar!”
But of course, he is in a weak bargaining position, having already wasted his time in negotiating a deal that he has no way to enforce — and so after blowing off some steam, he produces his checkbook.
When later Jerry gets a call from Carl telling him the pair now wants to double the agreed-upon ransom, Jerry lectures:
“Now, we had a deal here! A deal’s a deal!”
I would not necessarily call this an example of “cognitive dissonance”: Jerry’s “firm” voice is so unconvincing, you can tell he’s bluffing (or trying to, at any rate). Still, it’s one of the most amusing aspects of the movie, that Jerry is so blatantly dishonest in his legitimate business, yet exhorts criminals to act uprightly in their nefarious dealings.
”And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day.”
With all this said, it may seem incredible that the movie I’ve been talking is actually a comedy. Well, it’s sort of a comedy; Coens’ movies are difficult to categorize in terms of genre. Thing is, despite their seemingly mocking, even comedic tone, most Coens movies have a somber streak running through them. Even the most light-hearted fare never fails to remind us of what a dark and nonsensical world we live in. If you were wondering why the nice old lady in Ladykillers sends money to a school with a notorious history of racism, there is your answer; for all that the movie is a comedy, I don’t think this one is really meant to come across as a joke.
Another stray observation: the strings.
Fargo’s iconic soundtrack begins with the quiet strumming of a lyre-like instrument. This is a nod to the Homeric tradition of story-telling. (The Coens often include references to Ancient Greek culture in their films, the most obvious examples being Brother Where Art Thou?”, which is a Depression-era take on The Odyssey, and Blood Simple, a tale richly steeped in the creepiest Dyonisean creepiness.)
Last stray observation: the parking lot outside of Wade’s office.
There comes a point in Fargo where several important events are happening simultaneously, and the timeline gets somewhat blurry. There is one detail I find very curious. Jerry goes to see Wade and Stan at 2 PM. Their meeting is brief. When Jerry goes back to his car, the parking lot is empty and covered in snow, while the car is encased in ice. This suggests that Wade and Stan kept Jerry waiting for a LONG time — in fact, well past the time when most people working in that building have left for the day. It is, of course, a classic power play and a business trick: to keep Jerry stewing until he’s all stewed out and would agree to anything — a master stroke to the dirty little tricks Jerry himself plays on customers at Wade’s dealership. It’s not per se dishonest, but certainly humiliating and exploitative, which echoes the undercurrent of ill-will in the exaggerated niceness of the people who seem to populate Fargo’s Minnesota. The movie does suggest that the treacly good-naturedness masks a great deal of pent-up aggression — and Wade’s treatment of Jerry at his office is about as passive-aggressive as it gets.
The movie ends on a hopeful note — “Two more months.” It’s not just two more months till the baby is born. It’s two more months (I presume) before the snow begins to melt. And someone finds Wade’s goddamned briefcase.
More from “What Does This Movie Mean?”
Coens’ “Blood Simple” (1984)
The Godfather’s Oranges
Belinsky’s “The Aura”
“Fargo” (TV) Season 2 UFO’s
Kids’ movie rant: 1990 “Beauty and the Beast”
Kids’ movie rant: “Cars 2”
Posted in arts, culture, movies, What Does This Movie Mean? and tagged Coen, Fargo, Jerry Lundegaard