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Fargo (1996)
Director: Joel Coen

Little Man, What Now?

JUMP DOWN:        William H. Macy        Frances McDormand: As Funny as Ordinary Gets       
Defamiliarity        Raising Money        Balance       

Wiz Kids

Fargo (1996)I could understand people’s hesitations about Fargo when it opened because the previous two movies by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, Barton Fink (1991) and The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), had a blatant style that you couldn’t ignore yet wasn’t pleasurable. In nearly all their pictures both the camera work and the acting are highly stylized in a way that predetermines your responses, and their stories end up feeling hermetic, with all the life going on behind the camera. The Coens are the carefullest of "Look, Ma!" movie wiz kids. Whatever is appealingly brainy about them (Barton Fink is like a Twilight Zone episode based on the career of Clifford Odets, with a guest star turn by William Faulkner) also tends to freeze their "brilliant" technique and the confidently grotesque performances. Watching one of their movies you can feel locked in their vision; at their most deliberate they’re the opposite of Spielberg in his guise as gamemaster--they make recess feel like a special study session.

Raising Arizona (1987)On the other hand, in their second picture, Raising Arizona (1987), their razor-cut, madcap style has a kind of honest disreputability that Spielberg wouldn’t go near anymore, not since the criticism of Temple of Doom. Raising Arizona works because it tells a cartoon story and has that two-dimensional prodigy Nicolas Cage hotwiring it. Flash and one-skip-ahead ahead timing were all that mattered; shallowness was not a just gripe. Fargo, however, is even better, getting a stylized feel without in-your-face distortion. It doesn’t shoot out of the slingshot like Raising Arizona--in fact, it opens with stately emphasis on the undifferentiated, snowy expanses of the northern midwest while the music would be right for the funeral procession of a Celtic king. It does look at the suburban and small town characters with the professionally alienated view of an entomologist (one of the characters watches a TV science program about beetles the way we watch her), but without self-congratulatory hipness. The Coens get start-to-finish laughs at the characters’ expense and yet this time you don’t feel that they’ve been dehumanized by a pair of indie picture smartypants.

William H. Macy

The Coens achieve this by starting their story with, for them, unusual emotional pungency. William H. Macy plays Jerry Lundegaard, a Minneapolis car salesman who needs money to cover an embezzled loan. He hires some men to kidnap his wife so he can get the ransom money out of his bluff father-in-law Wade (Harve Presnell) who owns the car dealership where Jerry is executive sales manager. Macy’s Jerry is a mealy-mouthed man, with big, nervous eyes and a fleeting, unconvincing smile. His attempt to shuck his loserdom brings out a criminality he doesn’t even look like he could sustain. Jerry would rather have avoided the kidnaping by getting Wade to put up the money ostensibly to develop a parking lot. (It apparently doesn’t occur to him that he can’t cover the embezzlement, which has already been discovered, and buy the land for the lot with the same money.) He urges the older man, "This could work out real good for me and Jean and Scotty," and Wade rolls his eyes sideways and says ominously, "Jean and Scotty never have to worry." When Wade and his business manager later accept Jerry’s proposal, they laugh to discover he’s not in it for a finder’s fee but to own the deal outright, with their capital.

In this opening section the comedy is built up from Jerry’s slapstick ineffectuality--there’s a forlorn humor in listening to the salesman’s pep with which he improvises as hollow hopes collapse. Macy has the slightly sputtery timing for this incongruity, but there’s also a real depressiveness in the fact that Jerry doesn’t have the adult masculinity to put any of his schemes over. You can see why he’d resort to the kidnaping plot, because he certainly can’t talk Wade into giving him the money for any other purpose. Jerry’s a sneak, an adolescent type going behind his "father’s" broad back. In a deft little anti-car-salesman joke of a scene, we see Jerry sell an undercoat to a couple who specifically said they didn’t want it; Jerry sits looking pained as the man hollers and then writes the check. The joke is not that Jerry is Machiavellian (like Kurt Russell in Used Cars), but that he’s such a worm even when he’s pulling a fast one.

But Jerry overrelies on his worminess when it can get him only so far. The ransom demand he eventually makes is higher than he told his accomplices it would be, which is a double-cross, but, like Wade, who increasingly dominates the ransom negotiations as Jerry stammers in frustration, they manage to outplay him anyway. Jerry is a slapstick role in terms of the frustration of the protagonist’s plans, but Macy takes it to the end of the line. When his smooth boy-clown face creases in disappointment, and the skin suddenly looks rubbly and ruddy, Jerry’s slapstick ineffectuality seems like a form of torment, as if Joe E. Brown had been cast into hell for being Joe E. Brown. Macy makes Jerry’s desperation soul-sickeningly funny. If Jack Lemmon had played his depleted small businessmen without forcing (The Prisoner of Second Avenue) or losing (Save the Tiger) his comic timing, he would have given a performance as good as Macy’s here (and deserved the praise and awards he won anyway), but I don’t see how he could have been better.

Frances McDormand: As Funny as Ordinary Gets

Things go wrong in the course of the kidnaping, and it turns into a triple homicide before the ransom demand has even been made. This puts the case in the hands of a North Dakota policewoman, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), and about a quarter of the way in the movie hits a new level of comedy. McDormand (Joel Coen’s wife, for whom the brothers wrote the script 1 ) gets her first starring role here and she’s as funny as ordinary gets. Marge is an ultra-normal body, with the neat blown-dry figure-skater’s hair, careful vocabulary, and limited range of experience of the midwestern high school girl she was, not so long ago. Now happily married to the aptly-named Norm, a painter of ducks who competes for postage stamp commissions, she’s also eight months pregnant. She won’t have to change much to become a mother. She already has the mild glow in repose of a nerd Madonna and the patient tone of a woman used to talking to kids. When she thinks her partner has made a mistake on a license plate identification, she gently chides, "I’m not sure that I agree with you 100% on your police work there, Lou."

Twin Peaks - The First SeasonNo matter the subject of conversation--interviewing two corn-fed prosties about their evening in the sack with the kidnapers, or verifying with a killer the former owner of a leg sticking out of a woodchipper--Marge manages to put a lilt into her voice, as if congeniality had been bred into her. And the picture uses the nasal-Nordic accent of Minnesota and North Dakota to put a spin on the characters’ inanities. The phatic response, "Oh yah?" paces the conversations and starts to function as a running joke. (This is one of the bonuses of the Coens’ deliberateness. As McDormand has said, "[T]he musicality of the language was in the script. Every single yah was scripted." 2 ) There’s also comedy in the way that having a suburban mom as a detective enables the movie to sprinkle cop-show investigation with chat about such off-topics as food. Asking for a recommendation for a restaurant in the big town, Marge thinks to inquire, "Is it reasonable?" This recalls David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series, with Kyle MacLachlan recommending the cherry pie, but it doesn’t give you the freak-show jitters. (Not even when Marge presents Norm with a bag of nightcrawlers for ice-fishing during lunch.)

Marge can seem both berserk and canny, for instance when she insinuates in a gently maternal way that she could charge a man with accessory to murder and then turns her friendly perkiness back on full force for the investigative payoff: "So ya think ya might remember who those folks were who calledja?!" Suburban refugees will probably have to admit that Marge is a comfortingly familiar persona, even at the end when she moralizes to the big oaf in the back of her patrol car, "There’s more to life than a little money, ya know," as if sociopathy were caused by homily deprivation. We’ve all tried to hold the world in line with earnest bromides. We speak to children this way; I’ve spoken to my dog this way. No amount of sophistication can banish the internalized schoolmarm.

But Marge’s ordinariness is a surprising relief in the cop genre. Early on when she shows up at the crime scene and, despite morning sickness, looks at the three corpses, the two vehicles, the treadmarks and footprints, and gets every detail of the crime right, the movie’s simple inversion clicks: Marge is so much more untroubled and effective than you expect that she’s funny. Chaplin theorized that a figure had to act against expectations to be comic--for example, a tramp had to eat his boot with exquisite gestures. The joke here rests on Marge’s being utterly competent, with no waste effort and no agonizing. She’s not a super cop, but she’s not Jodie Foster’s quiveringly earnest feminist achiever in The Silence of the Lambs who is too shaky to shoot her gun straight and then doesn’t wait for back-up before following the killer into his dark basement.

The lack of agonizing is especially important. There are three scenes involving an old schoolmate who calls Marge out of the blue and then comes on to her when she meets him for lunch. Later she finds out from a friend how disturbed he’s been for years. The actor isn’t up to the mark and, further, the rhythm of each of these scenes is off, but they tell you that Marge is deeply unacquainted with the possibilities of psychological breakdown. She’s a good cop because everything abnormal stands out like a stain against her white-on-white sanity. (Marge shows none of the imagination of evil that McDormand must have grown up with as the daughter of an itinerant Disciple of Christ pastor. 3 ) Once Marge has solved the case she says, "I just don’t understand it," and her incomprehension is not only her strength as a detective, it justifies the deadpan style of the movie.


She is perhaps the first normal heroine presented without complacency who is winning not only despite, but in large part because of, the fact that she represents suburban culture as we know it. Dolores Claiborne (1995)Marge’s personality and circumstances don’t change and yet the movie isn’t the kind of comedy that sells suburban culture to suburbanites in suburban malls--the way Parenthood and the Father of the Bride movies have done. The Coens walk a fine line. Comic primness was never wiggier than McDormand’s as Marge, not Nancy Kulp’s as Miss Jane Hathaway on The Beverly Hillbillies, not even Dana Carvey’s as Church Lady on Saturday Night Live. You certainly laugh at Marge, who is as defined as a character in a TV comedy sketch 4 . (And you want to imitate her way of speaking the way you want to imitate the other great female dialect characters of the ’90s: Alicia Silverstone as Cher in Clueless, and Kathy Bates as Dolores Claiborne, with her Mainerisms and comically self-punishing low expectations.) But at the same time you know that Marge represents a skewed way of looking at something that really exists.

A lot of stand-up and sketch comedy is based on defamiliarizing the audience with things they take for granted, actions and attitudes and sayings that are considered "normal," that are common, but all the same freaky. Marge is a character based on that effect. It’s achieved by blending a suburban homemaker’s practicality with cop show skills (which is why you laugh at her bland, over-the-shoulder reference to one of the killings as "this execution-type deal"). Going to a suburban supermarket can make me feel as if I must be stoned ("Seafood, call on line one"); Frances McDormand’s Marge is our guide on a trip of this kind.

This means that the Coens aren’t exactly sincere. When a bartender tells a cop about an exchange with one of the kidnapers, the pauses in his story are long enough that this awkward older man in a parka momentarily looks like a Duane Hanson sculpture. He’s realistically poky, yet we see that the replication of drawn-out real-world timing can become effective theatrical timing. It registers so easily as absurdism.

Raising Money

Blood Simple (1984)And Fargo is not overall an emotional movie, though I do think the Coen brothers identify with wee, squirming Jerry. Talking about their first feature, Blood Simple (1984), upon its release in New York, they said that after the script was ready came

"the hardest, longest and most frustrating part": trying to raise $1.5 million to produce the film. They made a two-minute trailer, which Joel described as "a short, slick two-minute promo reel that we would schlep to various people." After a year of knocking on doors in New York, Minneapolis and Texas, they finally had their money. All of it came from private investors, 70 percent of whom were from their native Minneapolis. "They were a weird mixture--doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs," Joel said. Their parents, who are both university professors, also invested a small amount. 5 

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)Not as small as the amount Jerry would ever be able to pry out of Wade, but the connection seems clear. They know what it’s like to get people, including their parents, to part with some scratch. Pitting Jerry against a nearly totemic patriarch like Wade is a way for the Coens to make their story as neophyte artist-salesmen feel to us as difficult as it must have felt to them. And of course the pitch never ends for moviemakers, especially if, like the Coens, they want to get backing for their own projects, rather than work for hire on studio material.

However, they don’t make you feel as much as perhaps you should for Jerry’s hapless wife, and you never know exactly why she seems so anxious right from the start, the way she can lose the Mrs. Santa uplift in her voice in a split second. (Does she sense the rat inside mousy Jerry? Is she afraid of her father or just worn out by the strain between him and her husband? Is she overwhelmed by the responsibility of their refractory son?) She does seem to have inherited her father’s bullish vitality when she makes a run for safety though her hands are tied behind her back and a cap has been pulled down over her head. But the tone is unsteady in this scene. One of the kidnapers laughs, but we’re not sure if we feel like it.

And though Steve Buscemi (a/k/a Downtown Don Knotts) brings his usual ferrety pushiness to his role and pulls off a scene in which he yells at his frighteningly slow and quiet cohort for not talking during a long car ride--a scene that is bound to become a mini-classic: he threatens "total silence" for what seems like several minutes straight ("Two can play at that game, smart guy!")--this kind of comedy is less unusual, more predictably hard-edged and "urban" (we’re never sure if Buscemi’s kidnaper is supposed to be from the region or not).

However, if the wife doesn’t seem quite human, you do feel the tarantular violation of her world when a masked kidnaper darkens her sliding glass door. Altogether the movie is so fully conceived that the makers never have to force anything. There’s an elegance to the way it’s shot and put together, with understated conscious beauty in an almost abstract freeway chase and in a high shot of Jerry walking across a snowy parking lot to his car (this shot looks like wallpaper based on Japanese art).


And Joel Coen has never handled performers better. He balances Macy’s Jerry and McDormand’s Marge against each other in a way that steadies the picture even though they have only two scenes together. You’re constantly comparing Jerry’s twisting on a hook to Marge’s steadiness, which comes to seem more and more truly wholesome. On the other hand the pace of the movie doesn’t accelerate, and I think that may be the drawback to involving the two major characters with each other so little. Still, the movie is never unnecessarily remote: Jerry’s agonized impotence seeps deeper into your bones than anything else in any of the Coen brothers’ movies and Marge, with her big blue eyes and mournful underbite, is there to comfort you with an incomprehension you can only contemplate, like being born without original sin. The Coens may not be able to get an adequate sense of horror from a massive spray of blood in the snow, but then the picture isn’t Jerry’s tragedy. It’s a black comedy about the resilient sanity of a woman who cannot understand how that blood came to be there. Marge cleans up Jerry’s mess like an ideal mom who knows, without even having done the comparison shopping, which paper towels are the most absorbent.

  1. for whom the brothers wrote the script: Kronke 73. (return to text)
  2. [T]he musicality of the language: Kronke 77. (return to text)
  3. daughter: Kronke 74. (return to text)
  4. You wouldn’t want to underestimate McDormand as a tongue-in-cheek collaborator. When she used to get scripts specifying that her character had large breasts, she would take to the audition, without wearing them, a prosthetic pair (Lippy 23). (return to text)
  5. the hardest, longest and most frustrating part: Klemesrud. (return to text)