Sunday, April 24, 2016


FARGO (1996)

Director: Joel Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

It's so natural to look on the Coens as among the best American filmmakers alive and working today, that it's kinda difficult to go back and realize just how inexplicable they were originally. And they are inexplicable. I can easily put them on the same comedic pedestal as Woody Allen, Preston Sturgess, Mel Brooks, even the Zucker, Abrahams an Zucker team, but then you look at movies like "Blood Simple", "True Grit", "No Country for Old Men", "The Man Who Wasn't There", "Inside Llewyn Davis", and yes, to a certain extent, "Fargo", and you might not even realize these films are comedies. I'm not sure I'd argue that some of them are myself, but the comedic aspects of his movies are essential to all of them. It seems mainly that their major motif, if they have any consistent ones other than the fact that all their films are distinctly them, is that they're basically all different, depictions and aspects of Americana. They return to a few geographical locations more than once, but that's almost the exception and not the rule. They more or less seem happy to jump around the country and find some strange character or location or time period and find their own take on it. It's bizarre, they have the surreal absurdist streak of a Seth MacFarlane, but they seem to trying most to replicate the complete works of Norman Rockwell.

What distinguishes them first of all is that unlike most satirists, they don’t seem to hate or dislike their characters, or for that matter the caricatured tendencies they are satirizing. If anything, the thing they might actually be satirizing most is Hollywood movie conventions. It's done more outwardly in films like "The Big Lebowski" and "Barton Fink" among others even their most recent film "Hail, Caesar", but take “Fargo,” which is widely acknowledged as their greatest work, while they take great care to carefully explain the motives of each of their main characters, and we recognize that Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is just a guy who’s desperate to get respect from his father-in-law, Wade (Harve Presnell) and get the money to advance his career by buying parking lots. 

Now, on the surface this movie appears to be, just a typical crime story gone wrong. And yet, nothing's typical. First of all, it's obvious from the get-go the plan is absurd beyond belief and couldn't possibly work. Secondly, we usually expect characters like this, maybe not be smart, but for their plan to really be something elaborate and thought-out, like maybe Sterling Hayden's character in Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing", there's usually an inherent desire to cheer for these bad guys and be impressed with the scheme they pull off. Lundegaard however, isn't that competent. Neither are the bad guys he hires without even getting their phone number, Carl and Gaear (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare). He's not even that good at wiping down his tracks. It's pretty obvious that this plan will fail, but we still don't quite know how it will fail. There are a lot of false starts to begin the crime, making it strangely as believable as it is absurd.

The second part of their genius is that underneath the rye kind of off-kilter humor is that their work is their depictions of Americana, and the American Dream, makes them the modern-day Mark Twain. In this film, a guy wants to get respected and get money, in “Raising Arizona,” a couple wants to have a family, in “O Brother…” a guy just wants to get back with his wife and kids… their humor lies in the feeble attempts of their characters trying to accomplish the American Dream. They also satirize numerous other things, but this is the undercurrent that runs through their work.  

Famously, the movie's biggest con was that they begin with a declaration that the movie is, "Based on a True Story", and of course, as I hope most of you are aware, the movie is not. It's entirely fabricated by the Coens. But of course it's fabricated, nobody but the Coens could create a character so charming and beloved as Marge Gunderson (Oscar-winning Frances McDormand). After forty or so minutes into the movie, like how Hitchcock shocked us by getting rid of our main character in "Psycho", the Coens shock us by introducing us to our main character, a Brainard, North Dakota detective who's pregnant, but still quite smart and observant. She realizes right away what's going on by reading the crime scene, noting everything from footprints to dealer plates, and soon, she's off to Minnesota to investigate further. Although, she's still going through her own adventures. She's married to her loving husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch) who makes her eggs before going out on a 3:00a.m. call. She also meets up at a Radisson buffet with an old high school friend, Mike (Steve Park) in between going to Jerry's work and interrogating him, as he so poorly, pitifully tries to cover up his lies. It would've been so easy, to skip this sequence altogether and just have Marge come in, bust Jerry rather quickly and then start searching for that damn missing Tan Sierra, but the fact that it does take two visits, in between the conversation with the old high school flame, is fascinating, but instead, it causes her to think things through, not just be the Sherlock Holmes-ian detective that solves everything through reading the clues. No, it's good, solid reasoning. It's also far funnier to have Jerry think he's gotten, at least her off his back, only to have her come back again. (Hmm, I guess she's more "Columbo" than Sherlock Holmes, come to think about it.) 

It's through Marge that we realize what the Coens are actually maturing as filmmakers, insisting, that maybe the American Dream isn’t what it’s cracked up to be? Or maybe it's that movies aren't all that they're cracked up to be. 

“And for what? A little bit of money. There more to life than a little money you know… and here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.” 

That famous line, could have her talking about the typical crimes that they commit, or it could be for the typical movie characters and cliches the Coens are subverting. 

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