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?
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.