Welcome to Brainerd: The Coen Brothers' Fargo (1996)
“So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know?” – Marge Gunderson
Nothing is to be trusted in the Coen universe. Fargo, after all, commences with a lie. After the film became an unexpected hit in 1996, it came to light that the title card’s claim (‘this is a true story...’) wasn’t fact at all. The ensuing yarn-spun tale of a clumsy kidnapping was entirely fiction. Yet, this being Coenesque, there is a nugget of truth to Fargo – a real life story about an airline pilot who fed his wife into a wood chipper. Exactly the kind of absurdly, overcomplicated human evil that suggests Coen films are more like life than we realize. As their other films are blends of popular culture, their then-latest thriller was peppered with reality. Suggesting, however loosely, that their film was based on fact had an ulterior motive in setting a naturalistic tone. Rather than sealed within the bounds of their prototypical America, Fargo was to become the first Coen film to be located in the real world - potentially, even an autobiographical place as the filmmakers themselves hail from Minnesota.
The look of Fargo was to match the grim white-out landscapes of the Minnesotan winters the Coens knew well. That sinister moment where you cannot tell with any certainty where the snow covered ground stops and the blizzard-filled skies begin. There would be no horizon. The blank slate against which small-time misanthropy would freeze into murder. Deliberately veering away from the stifling product of The Hudsucker Proxy, the Coens attempted a documentary-like stateliness. Cinematographer Roger Deakins would frame scenes with a single, stationary camera, but maintain an aura of strange and delicate beauty: the disappearance of red tail lights into nothingness, the figure eight made by a car’s tracks in the fresh snow of an open-air car park, the fairy tale essence of the cabin in the woods. We can virtually feel the frosty cold, but the filmmakers had to chase it around the Midwest. With poor fortune, the shoot coincided with the region’s second warmest winter in a hundred years. Production shifted to Northern Minnesota, North Dakota and Canada. The titular city’s one appearance had to be faked. The story wasn’t to be structurally pleasing either. Unthinkably, the heroine doesn’t make her entrance for 33 minutes. The rulebook of screenwriting, storytelling and cinematic structure is buried in the snow; there are no cues about how we are supposed to react. Chuckle or weep?
The plot evolves from failing car salesman Jerry Lundegaard’s plan to hire two crooks to fake the kidnapping of his wife, forcing her wealthy father to pay the ransom fee of $1 Million and unknowingly settle Jerry’s financial woes. Why these two crooks in particular and how he has run up the debt are never mentioned; they don’t add up. The point is the banality of the crime and its perpetrators. Especially Jerry: this jittery milquetoast utterly out of his depth, unravelling in a specialist display of prattling anxiety by William H. Macy. The kidnappers in question, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud, were written specifically for the duo of Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare. Buscemi rattles on at such feverish speed in the film that the Coens saw fit to have his character shot in the jaw. But Carl is more reasonable than we might think. However immoral his actions, he is trying – and, admittedly, failing – to maintain a grip on sanity. Something that can’t be said for Gaear. Why they are partners, and they seem to have only just met, is another of the film’s mysterious ambiguities. It just wracks up tension. As their relationship inevitably disintegrates, the bodies of innocent bystanders are left facedown in the snow, and a fake kidnapping becomes a real one.
Frances McDormand, who deservingly won an Oscar for this unflappable good-hearted pregnant policewoman, catches the perfect frequency: outrageously humorous but never patronizing, springing the film into an unforeseen plane. She was actually written as an extension of the insane world of Fargo. Buscemi was supposed to be our cipher; the outlier in this land of crazies. What the Coens hadn’t taken into consideration was that Marge’s simplicity and goodness, completely new to a Coen film at the time, presents their disenchanted view of America with a laurel of hope. Jerry represents the repulsive yearning of the American Dream, whereas Marge is liberated from its grip and thus content. She is free of common cinematic storytelling tropes: a heroine who is unaffected, plain speaking and successful in a “man’s role.” But it is the women in Coen films who understand and secure the rules, and guard the ethics. McDormand came under fire for her depiction of Minnesotans as simple-minded oafs wrapped in puffer jackets while holding hot cups of coffee. But McDormand couldn’t have worked harder to finesse Marge’s persona – the ‘Minnesota Nice’ – using local voice coaches to perfect the stoic ease of a people for whom sub-zero is mild. And Joel jeered that if people wanted to be offended, then of course they would be. After all, their presumably simple character achieved greatness by putting an end to a heinous crime. If their goal was to mock and slander a set of people, they would not have given said people a victorious ending.
The Coens deliberately toe a fine line between comedy and parody, rarely setting out to judge or mock, but drawn by nature toward fillips of odd behaviour. It is what makes their characters so interesting. They explore their own place as non-conformist American filmmakers (i.e not the Americans of Hollywood movies) and they always feel a connection with the places they depict. In Fargo, it was a location they knew by heart: the taciturn, emotional-sidestepping world where they had been raised. Autobiographical is, perhaps, too strong a word but, in tapping a more personal vein, they connected with a wider audience.
The film itself remains, for many, the prestigious watermark of the Coens’ filmography. The Brothers’ pessimism is offset by a gentle morality that feels genuinely meant rather than laced with irony. Marge, settling back beneath the quilt of her quiet home life, sighs at the wickedness she has witnessed, the strange cruelty of a world that is quite beyond her. She may be a funny-walking, funny-talking caricature but she is never a fool and never a cliché.