Joel Coen, “Fargo” (1996)
A kidnap plot cooked up to save a car salesman’s hide going awry through sheer bad luck, incompetence and stupidity is the excuse for satirising rural Midwestern life, speech and culture in Joel and Ethan Coen’s mid-1990s film “Fargo”. John Lundergard (William Macy) is in deep financial shit and needs money fast so when he meets a couple of hoodlums (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare), he sees an opportunity to fleece his father-in-law, a co-owner of the car dealership where he’s employed, for loads of money: he arranges for the crooks to kidnap his wife Jean and demand a hefty ransom. The idea is the crooks will demand a huge amount from John and John will ask dad-in-law for more than what the crooks ask for so he can cover his debts. Once the deal is agreed on, the crooks carry out their side of the bargain promptly but Jean turns out to be harder to kidnap than they first thought. Jean’s struggles come to be the first and least of their problems: while carrying her back to their hide-out, the men are forced to kill a police officer and two travellers. From here on, the crooks make more errors, demand more money from John and kill more people to cover their hides.
Enter police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), tasked with solving the various homicides and tracing the thugs’ stolen car and licence numbers to John’s dealership. Gunderson sweetly if doggedly pursues various leads which come up short: the people she interviews are too nice and polite to describe one crook, Carl (Buscemi), as more than “funny-looking” and John refuses to co-operate. Luck and chance give her the opportunity to track down the crooks to their hide-out and put police on John’s trail as a suspect in the various homicides.
Why John is so desperate that he’d stoop to dealing with lowlife types to get more money out of his wife’s dad isn’t explained. Perhaps the fact that he’s a car salesman suffices: we all know car sales reps aren’t to be trusted, right? And we also know rich fathers-in-law who own the company where their daughters’ husbands work are tight-fisted arseholes who quibble over how much they might have to fork over to save their children’s lives, right? Needless to say, the father-in-law regards John as an incompetent: another necessary part of the stereotype to get the old fella into a spot of bother when he ends up facing the business end of a gun. These and other stereotypes afflicting the crooks and various other characters – small-town and rural Midwestern folk being polite, minding their own business, being considerate of others and not being very intelligent either – help to inflate “Fargo” into a caricature of regional life in a small part of North America. What else inflates the movie into caricature is the over-use of Midwestern regional dialect and jargon: all those “yaaahs” and “naaws” that folks drop into their conversations, meant to add local flavour and help round out character development, become patronising and insulting to the Swedish heritage of the people who live in the area where the film is set (North Dakota and Minnesota). The “niceness” with which Gunderson conducts her inquiries and fends off romantic advances from an old friend becomes very twee and there is no sense that behind her “nice” face lies a cool and calculating personality that she must surely possess to have become police chief.
It’s a pity that what’s meant to pass as an affectionate send-up of local quirkiness and eccentricity ends up looking blunt and ham-fisted and creates blank characters in a plot that is bereft of interest. There are worthy messages about how a small lie and banal personal problems end up escalating into a grand tragedy that draws in several innocent victims through chance meetings compounded by stupidity, incompetence and a mercenary mind-set embraced by several characters that puts a money value on everything including a woman’s life. The acting is very good – no one actor actually stands out head and shoulders above the rest – although the acting effort has gone into creating quaint character stereotypes rather than into developing realistic, troubled people who don’t fully understand their own motives or other factors, internal and external, that drive them to do what they do. One would like to know whether John’s debts are partly the result of trying to give his wife and son a life-style they demand which goes far beyond what he can afford, and of trying to please his father-in-law as well, in which case the shenanigans that occur in “Fargo” might be considered a kind of dark cosmic justice and a damning commentary on how far people are prepared to go to maintain a façade.
On the plus side the snowy landscapes have an eerie beauty and give the impression of hiding many secrets in addition to the million dollars that Carl buries but is never able to tell anyone about. The natural world, looking pristine and white, serves as a metaphor for the society: apparently clean, wholesome and honest but hiding an underbelly of greed, slippery ethics and expedience.