When Jerry Lundegaard, tired of scrounging for scraps and grinding as a failed car/undercoat salesman, decides to stage a kidnap and ransom of his wife to gain access to his father-in-law’s money and the mild mannered mid-westerner ends ends up in league with a violently pragmatic criminal cohort.
“Fargo” was the first film by the Coens (“The Big Lebowski”) wherin I realized that their vision and storytelling was on another level. It’s the movie of theirs that made me see below the surface of the events happening to entertain and elicit laughter, to the dark cold waters where the sun barely reaches. To the parts of the country, people, and attitudes that are always there but rarely talked about in a serious way, and are even more seldom actually resisted due to their power and primal nature.
Up till then, The Coens were just the directors of funny movies like “O Brother Where Art Thou,” “Raising Arizona,” and “Big Lebowski.” None of these had plunged my head below the surface to those deep waters. I had merely swam in the warm parts and felt my toes brushing the first little cold currents beneath me.
“Fargo” was a crashing wave which pushed me deeper than I had ever dived before and held me there till I swam for the surface, thankful that I was able to break it in a way that Jerry never does in the film.
It was a morality tale full of humor which was born of a realistic look into an American microcosm which begged me to look deeper into the water, more an more often, intentionally, rather than as an accident.
In many ways this feeling is what I look for in all the films I love, but “Fargo” was one of those few firsts which represent a leap forward in my movie awareness.
One of the most striking things about “Fargo,” right off the bat, is that it looks different than 99% of the movies out there. I don’t mean the cinematography, although the cinematography is spectacular. I mean the setting. The film opens looking down a stretch of highway an olds trudges its way through the snow and ice. It doesn’t ramble down the road. It doesn’t slide, cruise, or speed. It trudges in a way that a boy who grew up in West Michigan, constantly beset by Lake Effect Snow, and stories of the Blizzard of ‘78 with nary or rarely a snow day for relief.
There is an authenticity from this opening shot, that we are telling a story of hearty people in a hard-work demanding environment and they aren’t going to cheat this thing by shooting with a green screen. They’re going to go out in the snow storm for this.
I’ve talked before about the Coens and their ability to never lose sight, or rarely lose it, of the everyday man/woman and what a real hardship many aspects of life are for those who have not had the good fortune for things to have gone their way.
Maybe their number never came up or maybe it did, but in the bad way. Eitherway, the Coens seem to love that kind of a character and admire them.
What they don’t do, is excuse them. Nowhere in this movie will you get a hint of Jerry (William H. Macey, “Jurassic Park 3”) being portrayed as someone who should have done what he did or even dreamed of more than what was his calling. There is an irony to the fact that as a failure in much of his life he should turn to crime only to find out that failure’s in crime have bigger fish to fry than being slighted by their in-laws.
As Jerry’s plans backfire and people start getting hurt, Margie (Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri”), a County Sheriff is unwittingly stumbling into a huge case on just another whatever-day morning. She’s smart, kind, but no nonsense about her police work and has a warm relationship with her husband Norm (John Carrol Lynch, “The Invitation”). A far cry from how little Jerry seems to care about his family.
The sense of justice in a Coen film, especially this one, is some combination of fate, karma, hard work by good people, the idiocy of evil, and the naivete of the sheltered. The agents of this justice may be varied yet, it seems to always be there.
“Fargo” embodies many of the good qualities of the midwest; the value of family over money, the nobility of hard work by people just trying to scrape by, and straightforward manners and honesty as the foundation for community. It also shows the negative side, though. It shows the ambition to have more, the corruption and control of those who have more, and the inevitable violence that occurs when hardworking folk are forced to become desperate people.
The warmth and harshness of “Fargo” are two sides of nature, philosophy, and the human heart all wrapped up with the humor that comes as we recognize we are all the car salesman and the police officer throughout our lives.
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