Fargo (1996), Joel & Ethan Coen


A tale of desperate greed and callous indifference, the Coen Brothers’ 1996 Fargo – a film-noir negative with impressive snowy landscapes – follows a naïve salesman, who sets in motion a trail of brutal violence, which is dealt with by a heavily pregnant County Sheriff.

fargo-2Is Fargo the worst-case scenario of a true story about the American Dream gone terribly wrong? Which is the more contentious term in the precedent sentence: true story or American Dream? Some might find that both expressions are highly inadequate to describe the film. For it is widely known that the mentioning of truth at the beginning of the movie is a joke and that the tale that follows is more of a nightmare than a dream. However, it is similarly possible to hold the view that, in fact, the film showcases the truth about a society and its system of incentives taken to its logical conclusion.

Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) hires Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his own wife in order to extort money from his father-in-law due to financial mishaps. The plan starts to unravel when Showalter and Grimsrud are stopped by a police patrol, then kill the state-trooper plus two people who witnessed the first murder. Such psychopathic callousness leaves a trail of six dead people, a family destroyed and the astonished Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) wondering “and for what?! For a little bit of money.”

There’s plenty of greed and stupidity in this Coen brothers’ masterpiece. The greedy people – whose lust for money, respect or even food is displayed in every section of society – seem a somewhat obvious target. However, it is these people’s stupid behaviour which deserves more attention. Mediocre reasoning and unsophisticated logic create the opportunities for the spray of blood which stains the chilling whiteness of Minnesota. Everything starts with Jerry… His stupidity is a mix of slow wit and naïvety.

..Playing Against Convention: The True Nature of the Criminal Mind.

Another man would certainly realise that this ‘kidnap own wife to obtain ransom’ plan would not (could not) work. He involves his mechanic in the search for thugs! He believes that the mere demand of money and the assertion that the kidnappers would only deal with him is enough to persuade his father-in-law to part with $ 1 million. A father-in-law who even suggests that they should offer half a million to the thugs. And then there are the several times when the body count rises and Jerry isn’t smart enough to admit defeat and go to the police.

Steve Buscemi’s character Carl Showalter, like Jerry, shows plenty of greed and stupidity, although sometimes it is hard to set the character traits apart. Two emblematic decisions – one silly; the other fatal – illustrate the point very clearly. First, when he decides not to pay the $ 4 at the parking lot and then when he thinks wise to argue with his deadly partner Grimsrud about the tan Ford Ciera. Moreover, they fail to get rid of this car, which has been used to commit all their crimes. Don’t even mention hiding a briefcase full of money in the middle of a vast white ‘desert’!

cropped-fargo-1.jpg   fargo-3

Greed pushes people to do stupid things. Similarly, stupidity allows people to be greedy. The point is that greed is a form of stupidity. The arrogance and self-confidence shown by the characters with questionable ethics are just proof of their limited understanding. Jerry, Carl, Gaear, Shep, the mechanic, Wade, the father-in-law, all believe they know what they are doing, when in fact, they are blinded by their own hubris. The implausible violence and the disregard most characters have towards others when contrasted with the loving and mundane relationship between the Gundersons seems indeed shocking.

People might mock Marge’s and her husband Norm’s over-indulgence in food; be unimpressed by their lukewarm passion; even feel that they are far from ideal good guys: too mundane; too ordinary. But no-one can deny that they love each other and are quite happy with their lives. Marge’s incomprehension towards such violence shows her willingness to question and doubt – an attitude that goes beyond her role as a police officer. It is part of her temperament and a mind-frame ready to admit and accept its own mistakes and learn with them. It is ironic and paradoxical that the person most likely to question her own intelligence is the smartest of them all.

Fargo as a cautionary tale tells us what Marge Gunderson knows all along: they all have a limited understanding of what life is all about. It is not that $ 1 million is literally ‘a little bit of money.’ It is simply that there are far more important things in life than material prosperity. Shame on them for not getting that. Their main sins – and their eventual downfall – are less to do with greed, and more to do with a lack of worldly wisdom.

2 thoughts on “Fargo (1996), Joel & Ethan Coen

    • Dear Ewa, you’re quite right: dangerous indeed! Although I would argue that a pairing of greed and intelligence can also be extremely harmful. Some captains of industry cause plenty of suffering from their cleverness and prosperity. It would be great if we as human beings could be content with our lots in life and concentrate in intangible things like knowledge and love. Thanks for stopping by. Cheers. Ricardo.

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