Fargo (1996)

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*. Twenty years ago it was hailed as an instant American classic, a status achieved only by a handful of contemporary films (Blue Velvet, Raging Bull, Pulp Fiction). It’s hard to overstate the critical response. Roger Ebert immediately announced it “one of the best films I’ve ever seen,” and that was not much of a deviation from the norm.
*. I liked it when it came out too, but it has slipped a bit on subsequent re-viewings. The local-yokel humour in particular is way overdrawn, and the plot improbable. Indeed, the Coens added the bogus “based on a true story” disclaimer just so people would have an easier time believing the otherwise unlikely events.

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*. But is the plot that unlikely? Stupid, yes. Incredibly stupid. But most criminals are stupid people. It’s not that surprising that a loser like Jerry doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing. Even his legitimate business schemes are baffling. It’s no wonder his father-in-law and Stan Grossman can’t understand what he’s going on about when he tries to explain them. I couldn’t either.
*. On the DVD commentary, director of photography Roger Deakins talks about how insistent the Coens were that there be traffic in the window behind Jerry in his office. The joke, I take it, is that we see vehicles seeming to pass back and forth through Jerry’s empty head.

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*. Where the improbability, and other difficulties I have with the movie, come in is with the stupidity of everyone else. Let’s face it, Marge isn’t that sharp either. She starts off drawing some good deductions from the footprints in the snow at the crime scene, but no mention is made of the fact that her traipsing through them wrecks the evidence.
*. Aside from that, and despite being the brains of the Brainerd P.D., she does almost nothing to crack the case. Her one pertinent insight is to recognize that DLR on a license plate refers to a dealer. Meanwhile, Officer Olson is the one who providentially hears the report of a strange guy living by Moose Lake, and Jerry simply disintegrates in the face of Marge’s non-threatening (and apparently unsuspicious) questioning, essentially giving himself up.
*. Marge’s niceness and innocence makes her good at handling people, but she’s not very good at reading them. She can deal with Mike Yanagita, but is surprised to later find out that he was a bullshitter. And while she can get upset at Jerry being “snippy” with her, she seems never to twig to all the lies he’s telling her until he finally pulls a runner (which takes her by surprise).

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*. Ebert has another way of looking at Marge. He sees her as “very smart,” and that she “uses folksy small-town cheerfulness as a tool for prying criminals loose from their secrets.” I don’t think it’s as conscious a process as that, and even if it were, it doesn’t work. She gets nowhere with Shep Proudfoot, and Jerry falls apart due to circumstances she’s totally unaware of. I also don’t agree with Ebert that the meeting with Mike Yamagita and the subsequent revelation that he was lying to her is “the wake-up call that leads back to Jerry’s desk.” When she returns to see Jerry she’s still just trying to track down the missing car.
*. I don’t want to run Marge down too much, but this is a comedy and isn’t her analogue closer to Inspector Clouseau than a more cerebral detective? Even her interviews with Jerry, which are the best part of the movie, play like a moronic parody of similar scenes from other movies.

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*. And why is no one aside from Marge much interested in a triple homicide involving a police officer in Brainerd? You never see or hear of anyone else looking into it. When she arrives at the crime scene and asks where everybody is the only explanation she’s given is that “it’s cold.” Oh.

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*. Fargo? None of the film was shot in Fargo, and I think only the opening scene was actually supposed to take place there. The title was packaging. The Coens knew that a movie titled Brainerd wasn’t going to work.

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*. What still holds up after twenty years? William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard. There’s something pathetic and infantile about Jerry. His voice cracks, his strongest ejaculation is “darn tootin’!”, and he has a thing for breaking into impotent dances of fury. His button-eyed hang-dog is the face of American failure, the child-man risen to the level of his inadequacy.
*. Most of all, however, I still delight in the script. All those catch phrases and words aren’t just filler but take on different shades of meaning in context. When someone says “yah” it’s not even clear if they’re agreeing with you.
*. It fits that Jerry is a car salesman because so much of the dialogue is business-speak. What people say to each other has to be read and strained over like the lines on a contract. Jerry’s father-in-law says that his daughter and grandson will be financially provided for. He says nothing about Jerry, and his look carries the point. Jerry really isn’t family, at least in his book. He’s been left out of the deal.
*. If it isn’t in writing, it’s not a guarantee. Shep Proudfoot operates, and talks, the same way, underlining that he does not “vouch” for Grimsrud’s accomplice. In the exchange between Jerry and GMAC financing he keeps trying to substitute “fax” for “send,” but they are having none of it. When Steve Buscemi’s Carl Showalter ups the stakes because “blood has been shed” he invokes “force majeure” and “acts of God.”
*. I don’t like the ending much at all. Marge can’t understand Grimsrud’s actions since she assumes it was all for the money. But she’s mistaken: Grimsrud is a psychopath. He didn’t kill Mrs. Lundegaard for money but because she was making too much noise, and interfering with his TV watching.
*. It’s a very real world in this respect. People don’t behave rationally, even when they think they are. They act the way they do out of routine, because they are too stupid to understand what’s in their own best interests, or because they’re crazy or desperate.

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*. My other problem with the ending is the nagging sense I have that the movie doesn’t really believe in its pat little moral lesson, with Marge and Norm snuggling together in the glow of their television set, affirming the ultimate victory of their homespun domestic virtues. Are these Hollywood values triumphing over the world’s evil? Are they values that the Coen brothers care about? I don’t get that impression, which is something that colours how I see the film.

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*. Yes, the Coens are natives of Minnesota. But not, I think, this Minnesota (they were raised in the ‘burbs of Minneapolis and their parents were university professors). I think this is why the locals seem so much like aliens, the icy landscapes like another planet. A planet we’re looking down on.
*. Is it a great movie? Maybe the label “American classic” is better applied. It’s lasted for twenty years now, seemingly frozen in time as well as place since there is little that dates it. And yet distance does make it all seem smaller.

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