Saturday night, my wife and I showed Fargo to another couple. About half an hour in, immediately after the first set of grisly murders, one of our guests asked "Why are we watching this?" After it was over, she asked us why we thought it was a great film.
I never thought I’d have to defend Fargo. But it’s worth defending. Many motion pictures have dealt with issues of good and evil. But few have dealt with them as thoughtfully, as vividly, and as entertainingly as Fargo.
The following includes spoilers. I’m writing this on the assumption that you have already seen Fargo. If you haven’t, stop reading. Or better yet, see it ASAP (really, it’s worth it) and then return and read.
Within the context of a darky comic film noir, set against bleak snowscapes (just watching this movie makes you feel cold), the Coen brothers juxtapose good and evil as a matter of character. Easily the most evil character in story, the large, hulking and sulking, violent Gaear (Peter Stormare) is totally withdrawn into himself. His partner Carl (Steve Buscemi) complains of four hours without a word spoken. And this is a man who can kill in cold blood, without even a thought that he might feel remorse.
At the other end of the moral scale, Marge (Frances McDormand) is fully connected to the people and society around her. She’s pregnant (giver of life while Gaear takes it away), and happily married to an easygoing artist who clearly adores her. A small-town police chief, Marge has a way of putting people at ease. When an old boyfriend makes a clumsy pass at her, she lets him down in a way that doesn’t even acknowledge the pass. She starts out seeing the best in everyone, but is nobody’s fool.
It’s fitting that late in the film, Marge gives Gaear, now handcuffed in the back of her car, a lecture on right and wrong. "There’s more to life than just money." He sits there, poker-faced and apparently unmoved. I’d hate to be his prison cellmate.
Other characters fall in between them on the moral scale, but most veer towards evil (this is, after all, primarily noir). With the film’s most interesting character, Jerry (William H. Macy in a performance that made his career) the Coens show us how evil begins. We’re never told what exactly put him in such horrible economic straights that he’d contrive to kidnap his own wife to extort his father-in-law, but we get the general idea. He’s self-centered, stupid, and cowardly. If he had Marge’s backbone, he would have gone to his wife and explained his situation. If he had had Marge’s brain, he wouldn’t have gotten into whatever fix he was in. But since he is who he is, he concocts an idiotic scheme that will end in disaster.
A large part of Fargo’s pleasure comes from watching Jerry self-destruct. The "mastermind" behind the kidnapping plan, he sees everything go wrong and his entire life fall apart. Six people are murdered in the course of the story, and he’s indirectly responsible for every single one of them.
in addition to character, the Coens play brilliantly with tone and genre. At first, Fargo seems simply a darkly comic thriller. The early kidnapping scene manages to be both horrifying and funny. The comic timing separates you emotionally from the violent act, and almost makes you root for the kidnappers (but not quite).
Then, as almost always happens in noir, the crime goes wrong. Gaear calmly kills a highway patrolman and two bystanders. The violence is gruesome and horrifying, Gaear’s utter lack of remorse–or any emotion–makes it even worse. Suddenly, we’re in a terrifyingly dark and violent film.
Fade out. Fade in.
Then we meet Marge for the first time, in bed with her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch). Note the name the Coen’s gave him: Norm. He’s normal. Actually, he’s better than normal. When his wife gets a call in the wee hours of the morning, he insists on getting up first and making her breakfast. Marge and Norm are funny characters. We laugh at their eating habits (Arby’s) and their small-town Minnesota accents. (Of course, we laugh at everyone’s Minnesota accents. The Coens, Minnesotans themselves, know how to milk laughs out of white people talking funny.)
But we also admire this couple–especially Marge. Introduced immediately after Fargo’s darkest moment, she becomes the film’s primary shaft of light. When things look darkest, the Coen’s cut back to her, and we enjoy her humor, her empathy, and her ability to see through the bullshit that everyone throws at her.
She is, in a sense, a small-town, pregnant Columbo–the working-class cop who nails the bad guys with one more question.
And in the end, she arrests the baddest bad guy in Minnesota, returns home to her husband, and compliments on his painting.
The world is full of evil, but there’s a lot of good, too. At least sometimes, it prevails.