Fargo (1996)

Directed by Joel, Ethan Coen

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Marge Gunderson, Jerry Lundegaard and Gaear Grimsrud all feel like they’ve been pulled from vastly different movies.  They are so unique, not just in personality but by the deepest codes by which they guide their own lives, and yet here in Fargo they will all cross paths because of a crime that spirals out of control.

Marge (Frances McDormand) is the one whose journey we follow through all of this, even though we don’t meet her until over thirty minutes into the film.  She is the very pregnant, very capable police officer in a small Minnesota town who can succinctly put together the puzzle pieces of a triple homicide without batting an eye.  When she tells her partner Lou what she thinks happened, she describes it as “this execution-type deal.”

Later she will explain to one of the men behind this mess that she can’t understand how his mind works, how he could do such a thing.  In that moment she wades into this unknown, perhaps frightening territory from which others might not emerge.  You see it in Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s monologue at the end of No Country For Old Men and in the madness of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.  But for Marge Gunderson, she acknowledges it and then returns to the warmth of her own home with a loving husband working on his stamp paintings.  She wades into the deep end but doesn’t drown.

The first character we meet in the movie is Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a pathetic middle-aged man who has concocted a plot to have his own wife kidnapped so that his father-in-law will pay the money he needs to buy a parking lot.  Jerry works for his father-in-law and though all the finances are taken care of, is clearly desperate to make a name for himself, to prove something to himself.  Whether or not he knows this, he claims to be doing this for the benefit of his family.

Then there are the criminals he hires to kidnap his wife.  They are Gaear (Peter Stormare) and Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi).  They are their own odd couple, one who never talks and the other who can’t shut up, but much of the potential humor is muted by the horrific violence they commit without a second thought.  Later in the movie, when Jerry’s kidnapped wife tries to escape through the snow, she will stagger around blind (a hood over her head) while Carl laughs maniacally.  These are heartless characters, constantly feuding with each other, but you’re not on either one’s side.

They are a form of madness, capitalist and corrupt, egocentric and selfish, and Marge is the one to bear witness to it all.  She is so indifferent, in a sense, to their motivations that it is as if they are of different species.

I wouldn’t even say the movie itself understands Marge, but purposefully so.  Marge has no sympathy for these characters because she doesn’t understand the greed which drives them.  The movie, however, begins and ends with a heavy, almost tragic music score.  It’s operatic and grand, before we’ve ever seen or heard from these characters.  It’s an auditory warning that what is about to follow is doomed, and in that warning there is a bit of empathy, at least it seems that way to me.

To tell a tragic story and to attempt to convey that tragic quality is to feel for those involved.  The movie relates to the desires of these characters because it’s a desire that’s surely not foreign to the audience (we’d all like more money), and I think it suggests that they suffer from a sickness which plagues so many in a country like America.  And yet much of the story is framed through the eyes of someone like Marge, who doesn’t share this understanding.

It’s important, then, that the movie ends with her and her husband.  It’s as if we have slowly become acquainted with Marge Gunderson, seeing her as alien and unusual (because of the strong accent and lack of overt emotion), but by the end we have learned (hopefully) to speak her language.  We agree with her, that this is all madness.

Up Next: The Yakuza (1974), Absence of Malice (1981), The Way We Were (1973)

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