Criminality as a Societal Metaphor in the Coen’s ‘Fargo.’
At 25, the Coen Brothers’ black comedy classic provides a snapshot of a changing society… and the impact on those at its heart.
By Sarah Willits
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In the opening shot of the Coen’s darkly comic crime thriller Fargo (1996), a barely perceptible image emerges of a bleak landscape, where the snow blends seamlessly into a boundless white sky. For a moment, as the ominous soundtrack builds, it seems unlikely anyone could exist in such a place. Then, inexplicably, a car bursts through the curtain of snow and makes its way into a roadside bar.
For the uninitiated, the driver is Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a downtrodden second-hand car salesman on his way to meet criminals-for-hire Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare). Once acquainted, he will employ them to kidnap his wife, hoping to pocket a high proportion of the ransom handed over by his wealthy father-in-law. If successful the scheme will save Jerry from both the financial discrepancies of his dodgy car dealings and the shame of having to acquiesce to in-law Wade Gustafson’s (Harve Presnell) domination. And if it fails? Well - if his cheerful ‘Hon?’ as he stamps snow from his boots upon returning home is anything to go by - he hasn’t really thought about that.
Drawing upon the familiar territory of their Minnesotan upbringing, the Coens’ have already begun to utilize a key trait of the longstanding crime narrative: as reliant upon society and setting as they are the crime, suspects and detectives themselves. Historically, such reliance has revolved around geographic location. More recently, however, the role has been enhanced and diversified, with characters affected not only by the direct, insular communities in which they are set; but also the changing cultural expectations placed upon them as individuals and a new outlook spawned through national media. For the 1980s set Fargo this provides a contradiction, with both hero and villain caught between the traditional aspirations of the small-town Midwest and a new materialistic outlook on measuring their own success.
Accompanying such shifting sociological ideals is the demise or redefinition of the once sought-after American Dream: the national ethos in which success and upwards social mobility can be obtained by all as inevitable by-products of hard work. In Fargo, such an ideal is epitomized by the titular location (the namesake of William George Fargo), and the giant folkloric statue of Paul Bunyan (the ax-wielding lumberjack who looms above the characters as they travel along the icy road towards Brainerd). Co-founder of Wells Fargo and later American Express, ‘Fargo’ could be said to represent the romance of American expansionism, yet is used here simply as an ‘evocative’ title that is only visited once. Respectively, folk hero Bunyan has long since been re-appropriated as advertising, extended to the point at which, when Carl and Gaear stop in search of hookers, they arrive at a motel entitled ‘the Blue Ox,’ the name of Bunyan’s loyal companion illuminated briefly outside before a swift cut to the bedroom. When questioned, one will describe Gaear’s likeness to another American advertisement: the Marlboro Man. Though ‘maybe I'm sayin' that 'cause he smoked Marlboros,’ she continues. In this new consumerist world, the two figures are perhaps comparable, yet it is Gaear’s brushing resemblance to the latter which delivers the chilling twist. If all he needs to embody the Marlboro man is the namesake cigarettes, then perhaps he can do the same with the now culturally bereft imagery of the ax-wielding Bunyan: a tall, rugged figure that ends the film by burying an ax in his accomplice’s neck.
Indeed, the bankruptcy of this work-driven dream is shown as the spawning point of Fargo’s criminality - Gaear and Carl may be murderous and violent, yet it is Jerry Lundegaard’s outlandish decision to employ them to kidnap his wife which provides the only motive in an otherwise senseless series of events. ‘I’m asking you here, Wade,’ he implores seeking investment prior to the kidnapping. ‘This could work out real good for me, Jean and Scotty.’ Wade however is quick to dismiss such aspirations, instead reasserting himself in the ‘masculine provider’ role: ‘Jean and Scotty never have to worry.’ Consequently, it is Jerry’s shame at being unable to live up to such a cultural model that compels him forward with his doomed plot, never stopping to look around at his settled home and family but ever onwards towards his own measure of ‘success.’ This may well be ‘the American dream’ - he is already living it - and yet finds the result insufficient. Of course, he is not the only character who falls into such a category. In fact, we needn’t look outside his own household to find son, Scotty, leaving his home-cooked meal cooling on the table as he heads for McDonald’s, or Wade and Jean staring zombie-like into the television, disappearing into another world even as their own (quite literally in Jean’s case due to Carl’s crowbar) collapses in towards them.
That is not to say, however, that Fargo does not make use of its peculiar locality, those cultural ‘pockets’ or ‘micro societies’ with their ‘idiosyncrasies and peculiarities.’
Marge: Okay, so we got a state trooper pulls someone over, we got a shooting... a high-speed pursuit… and this execution-type deal.
Marge: I'd be very surprised if our suspect was from Brainerd.
Demonstrative of the un-emotive climate of Fargo, the detectives’ exchange is banal, almost cheerful, until the heavily pregnant Marge (Frances McDormand) suddenly hunches over and for a moment resembles the moral, affected stance of the films’ promotional material: kneeling in the snow over one of the victims. ‘I’m fine… morning sickness,’ she murmurs, then straightens up and the imagery, and emotion, disappear. ‘Well, that passed. Now I’m hungry again.’ Thus what the viewer has learned of Brainerd’s distinguishing traits (namely its unemotional stoicism), is exemplified through these detectives: embodying what it means to be the ‘good,’ law-abiding figures in their verbal and physical response to the crimes.
If, however, the detectives’ adherence to these societal norms identifies them as the morally ‘good’ figures, it is perhaps also true that their antithesis must represent the ‘bad,’ with villainization of the ‘other’ used as a way of distancing the threat and removing internal blame. When asked to identify the villains for instance (extending on Marge’s immediate – and correct – judgment that the suspects are not local), witnesses are repeatedly unable to offer any tangible description of Carl beyond that he is ‘funny-looking.’ Notably, Showalter is the only character without the tell-tale lilt and, moreover, the only one seemingly unable to control his own physical impulses. We see it in the bar with Jerry, with the repeated assertions he can ‘handle’ the officer who pulls them over with a kidnapped Jean on the backseat, but perhaps none more noticeably than in his desperation to form some kind of connection with his psychopathic accomplice. ‘Would it kill you to say something?’ He demands repeatedly, only to become more and more unsettled at Gaear’s silent invisibility – specifically how easily it fits into the surface-level communication of the locals. Just as Marge’s thoughts jumped from death to food, so too does Gaear (in perhaps his longest speaking scene), jump from kidnapping to the location of the nearest ‘pancakes hause.’ ‘What are you nuts?’ Carl counters, bewildered - an ‘outsider’s view’ that he is unable to share with the officer at the roadside: Gaear - with his Minnesotan-reminiscent Swedish accent and bodily control - has already leaned over and shot him in the head.
Gaear’s uninterested reaction to the murder is perhaps an extreme example of the stoic nature we have come to expect from these characters, with eerie parallels between both criminal and detective. Consequently, Fargo’s uniquely chilling tone perhaps stems less from its outrageous criminal acts than it does the perpetrators, with only the ‘abnormal’ Showalter capable of expressing genuine human emotion. Accordingly, his progression as an antagonist effectively reverses the criminal trope of ‘outsider,’ becoming more dangerous the closer he mimics the ‘norm.’ This culminates when, expecting to meet Jerry to exchange the ransom money; he is instead confronted by Jean’s father. ‘Is this a fucking joke here?’ He shouts before shooting him in a move reminiscent of Gaear’s murder of the police officer. ‘You happy now, asshole? What is with you people?’
Discerning criminality via non-adherence to society strictures is relevant even when the perpetrator hails from within the community. Jerry Lundegaard for instance, following his ill-fated meeting with Wade and Stan, is scraping the ice off his car when he momentarily goes into a frenzy, banging the scraper against the hood. In the flurried movement Jerry unwittingly mimics the disorderly Carl, before the moment passes and - scrape-scrape-scrape - he goes back to work on his windshield. In such a way, Jerry’s use of social norms is shown to gradually deteriorate, developing over the course of the film until, by the time of his arrest, he is heard through the locked door of a North Dakota motel, frantically trying to stall the police with the provincial, ‘yah, yah, just a sec,’ before they break it down to reveal the true extent of his downfall: chaotically trying to flee out of the bathroom window only to be dragged back sobbing and screaming by the police.
Accordingly, once the criminals have been rounded up and their ‘otherness’ confirmed, the community of Brainerd is quick to return to its status quo; with their own adherence to societal strictures reinforced by the perpetrators’ non-conformity. By the end, this could even be said to apply to Gaear who, having killed Jean and Carl, attempts to dispose of the latter’s body in a wood chipper before fleeing across the ice. It is a sudden break in a character until now entirely impassive, and one quickly rectified by a bullet through the leg and a trip in the back of Marge’s police car. ‘I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper?’ she asks as they stare impassively out of the window. ‘And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money.’ Though as their eyes flicker to the ever-imposing Bunyan statue there is a sense that her speech carries as much comment on the breakdown of social commitments as it does his violent murder spree; that so long as she can suppress the true reasoning, she can ignore the inevitable. ‘And here you are. And it’s a beautiful day,’ she states blandly of the blank snow. ‘I just don’t understand it.’