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Holy Hell! Fargo Turns 20

Holy Hell! Fargo Turns 20

Fargo shows the Coen Brothers working in a progressive, political fashion without sacrificing any other endearing traits.

The Coen Brothers have a diverse body of work, 17 films over three decades skirting familiar genres such as westerns and noirs to “artier,” less classifiable offerings like Barton Fink. They are rarely ignored by AMPAS come Oscar season, even winning for No Country For Old Men, but they aren’t quite favorites and don’t put much thought into awards anyway. This paradox speaks to the simultaneous accessibility of their films as well as the idiosyncratic, more nuanced structural and aesthetic concerns that are sometimes separate but often intertwined with aspects of genre and traditional storytelling.

Fargo constituted the Brothers’ breakthrough, combining the commercial success that Raising Arizona had with the critical reception that most of their other films (but not that one) achieved, and even added a strong showing at the Oscars into the mix. The Coens continued to make successful films, and as is so often the case, despite losing the Oscar, Fargo grew in stature with time. But despite being the consensus favorite for so long, the tide has started to turn.

Statements of that type are hard to prove and bound to be anecdotal, a reflection of one’s (in this case, my) echo chambers more than anything. But taking a look at the ranking history of They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They, which compiles countless polls, while Fargo has continued to climb, other titles, especially The Big Lebowski ranked 215th overall to Fargo’s 208th, have climbed faster. Somewhat ironically, Fargo’s obvious reasons for appeal – its comparatively warm attitude toward its characters, its clear genre roots, the rather familiar story, the more straightforward structure – are to some extent working against it. Too many things that can be clung to regardless of director means that the Coens’ specific touch is somewhat muted, and that the film is therefore a less impressive, singular, artistic work than some of their other films.

Whatever its differences from other Coen pictures, Fargo has the directors playing, as they so often do, with film noir. If one accepts that genre and the meaning it carries is the defining trait of the Coens films, as integral to their world view as their treatment of characters and distinct sense of humor – an argument that is perhaps made most eloquent by the filmmakers themselves in Hail, Caesar!Fargo remains, by some measure, a crown jewel of the filmography. In Fargo, the very order countless noir films aim to reinstate is relocated as society’s problem rather than its solution through play with gender, direct invocation of the American mythos and, of course, their trademark humor.

On a larger scale, Fargo starts out as something parodic yet charming. The emasculation of Jerry (William H. Macy) always comes with laughs; the bungling hit men match those of Home Alone or Pulp Fiction; the heavy accents, somehow always more detectable in the most absurd and awkward scenes, cloak subtext in laughter. Even when a noir atmosphere takes over the film after the instigating of a kidnapping – Jerry hires two men to kidnap his wife with the hope of extorting her rich father – and the film offers a night-time scene, an insubstantial conversation de-escalates the tension a noir would normally amp up. It’s easy to forget that the graphic first murder that follows is a genuine shock on the first view. All at once the light, amusing film that the Coens so often make becomes something significantly more sinister.

Noir works largely to excavate the seedy underbelly of America. One of Fargo’s most memorable affectations, the exaggerated accents and “Minnesota nice,” is not merely a sign of Coen mockery but also an encapsulation of the film. In one scene, a displeased character vents angrily but picks up the phone with a cheerful “Hello,” disclosing what lies just beyond the cheerful demeanor. In another scene, Jerry, who works at a car dealership, is trying in vain to calm down an angry customer. The encounter gradually escalates until the irate man calls Jerry “a fucking liar,” a remark that causes shocked expressions on the face of his wife and of Jerry. In a brief moment of silence, the man’s wife nudges him, as if swearing is a breach of the Minnesota nice etiquette too sacred to let slide. The irony, of course, is that what really lies beneath Jerry’s own Minnesota nice is a kidnapping plot against his own wife that leads to a string of deaths. A break in lingual etiquette is hardly worth mentioning compared to the other taboos Minnesotans commit in Fargo.

Among its many oddities, Marge (Frances McDormand), the hero of the film, does not appear for 33 minutes. We see shots of her home and of paintings, which we will naturally associate with feminine domesticity before we learn that they are in fact Norm’s. Here, our lone wolf detective, is now incorporated firmly within the law rather than working parallel to it. We come to embrace her – not the emasculated male, as is so often the case – as the hero. Rather than a protagonist caught between a femme fatale and a good girl or some male equivalent and trying to recreate patriarchal structures, Marge is happily married, pregnant and the very embodiment of domesticity. On the other end of the spectrum is an emasculated, meek man who cannot get a word in edgewise and is far removed the wealth, power and success of his father-in-law and thus unable to prove himself worthy of his marriage. As Marge nurtures her insecure, sensitive husband Norm, whose painting of a mallard is chosen, to his disappointment, for use on the 3-cent stamp, Jerry can only destroy the family. Ultimately, the matriarchal domestic model practiced by Marge and Norm wins out, and the traditional model, so tied to money and status ultimately leads to tragedy.

Of course, other Coen noirs make their own critiques, but Fargo, perhaps more than any other, accumulates meaning and laughs through small details. Carter Burwell’s score begins not unlike something out of a Spaghetti Western, but instead of a covered wagon coming over the mountain we see a car, as if industrialization has come and gone and there is no more frontier to explore (the Coens would pull the same trick in The Big Lebowski, in which a tumbleweed rolls onto a highway at the beginning of the film). Western touches continue with the presence of Paul Bunyan, who exists both as a statue and in “The Blue Ox,” the film’s bar and restaurant, named for Babe. Marge will later refer to one of the killers as “a big fella,” connecting him to Bunyan, and she will question two women who describe one of them as having similarities to the Marlboro Man. America’s foundational myths and capital (and hence patriarchal) creations are villains rather than success symbols in Fargo.

While the Coens are always reimagining genre, more apparent Coen affectations sometimes drown out or even replace the substantial work they often do. Fargo’s warmth, straightforwardness and clear moral statements spoken by Marge may make it an “easier” film to grasp, but not before or since have the Brothers grappled so intelligently with the subtext of the films that have inspired them, even though those films are almost certainly present in some way or another. Critics dismiss the Coens as conservative, and even fans often cast aside political questions, but Fargo shows the pair working in a progressive, political fashion without sacrificing any other endearing traits.

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