Blog Directory CineVerse: Why Marge remains in charge: How Fargo speaks to us today

Why Marge remains in charge: How Fargo speaks to us today

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The distinct pleasures earned from watching Fargo remain intact 25 years after the film’s theatrical debut. Doubters need only revisit this 1996 treatise on pseudo-true crime and the twisted comicality inherent in human conflict catalyzed by avarice to quickly be reminded of Fargo’s gift for effortlessly blending black humor with believable bucolic sensibilities. Take a few moments to reflect on why this film still matters in 2021 by asking yourself a few questions:

Why is this movie worth celebrating all these years later, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It stands as a textbook example of how filmmakers can masterfully manipulate viewers and defy their expectations. And it deserves to be appreciated because it was completely unconventional and unexpected for its time.
    • Think about how Fargo sets itself up as a true-crime thriller, even with the title card that it is based on a true story, with names changed to protect the innocent. However, it unfolds as a very unconventional and unpredictable take on this subgenre, using humor, irony, and flawed but fascinating characters to tell its story. And of course, we quickly learn that the tale and its characters are pure fabrication, with a disclaimer given during the final credits that all persons and incidents were fictitious.
      • Ethan Coen said in an interview: “We wanted to make a movie just in the genre of a true story movie. You don’t have to have a true story to make a true story movie.”
      • As an aside, Joel and Ethan Coen admitted in recent years that two elements of the narrative were based on fact: Someone decades ago tried to defraud the General Motors Finance Corporation by fudging the serial numbers on cars, and a Connecticut man dispatched his wife’s body via a woodchipper.
    • Example #2 of how Fargo upends our expectations: Some of the violence that should be disturbing and grisly becomes funny—such as when Carl is shot in the face, his partner pushes down Carl’s severed foot in the wood chipper, Shep Proudfoot whips Carl, Jerry’s wife stumbles around blindly while wrapped in the shower curtain, etc.
    • Ponder, too, how Marge is the complete opposite of a traditional heroic lead: She’s female, pregnant, and not exactly Sherlock Holmes-like in her crime-solving skills, although she proves to be intuitive and smarter than audiences might have expected. She isn’t a hardboiled brawny cop or a noirish detective with a sordid past; actually, she’s polite and contented. She also leads a very simple, mundane existence with her ordinary Joe husband, whose major life accomplishment proves to be getting one of his artistic works on a three-cent stamp. She’s not even introduced until the second third of the movie, and we don’t get any grand payoff by the conclusion of a happy birth by a new mother.
    • Additionally, Jerry, Carl, and Gaer, while capable of great evil, are depicted as petty and pathetic villains whose greed and selfishness obscure their ability to properly plan a crime. Jerry in particular seems as bright as a box of rocks. The bad guys in this movie bungle just about everything, which contradicts the unwritten rule in the crime thriller that the antagonists should be shrewd, elusive, and diabolically intelligent. Ironically, Jerry comes across as somewhat sympathetic, despite being cruel and heartless in his motivations, which are to flee with the cash and abandon his wife to violence and death and desert his son. Carl and Gaer, meanwhile, provide much of the comic relief in this film, despite being dangerous and violent criminals.
      • “One of the reasons for making them simple-minded was our desire to go against the Hollywood cliché of the bad guy as a super-professional who controls everything he does. In fact, in most cases, criminals belong to the strata of society least equipped to face life, and that’s the reason they’re caught so often. In this sense too, our movie is closer to life than the conventions of cinema and genre movies,” Ethan was quoted as saying.
    • Ruminate, as well, on how the dialogue is often quite clumsy and stilted—like real life; while Fargo is infinitely quotable, this is not a film with clever quips and articulate one-liners.
    • Furthermore, many crime thrillers contain gratuitous nudity or at least erotic scenes; Fargo has minimal sex scenes, and these are more humorous than titillating.
    • Next, give pause to how Fargo’s setting is one seldom chosen in mainstream Hollywood movies; the cold, bleak wild expanse of North Dakota and Minnesota. Also, this regional dialect is rarely used in movies. In fact, this is a rare film that puts a strong emphasis on the vernacular and manner of speech of a particular community.
    • What’s more, the title is quite misleading, as only the initial scene where Jerry first meets Carl and Gaer actually occurs in Fargo, North Dakota; most of the action happens in Brainerd, Minnesota. In this way, the film is similar to Chinatown, a movie that only features one scene in the titular location.
      • Ethan Coen said they chose the title because “we liked the sound of the word—there’s no hidden meaning.”
  • The film also contains quirky subplots and digressions, such as Marge meeting up with Mike Yanagita, an Asian former schoolmate. Sidebar: While many point to the Yanagita scenes as diversionary, trivial, and even unnecessary, consider that Marge learning that Mike had been lying motivates her to re-question Jerry, whom she suspects is also lied to her.
  • On a side note, it’s interesting that this picture contains two Hitchcockian MacGuffins: the ransom money, which we never learn the fate of; and Marge’s pregnancy, which has no bearing on the story.

In what ways do you think this film was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?

  • While it’s difficult to make a definitive case that Fargo initiated a new subgenre or inspired peers or influenced the next generation of filmmakers, there are a few subsequent works that owe a debt to this picture, including:
    • A Simple Plan by Sam Raimi from 1998
    • 2005’s The Ice Harvest by Harold Ramis
    • Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter from 2015, the story of a Japanese woman hunting for the buried ransom money shown in Fargo.
    • The cult classic cable series Fargo on FX that has now spanned four seasons since its inception in 2014.

What themes or messages are explored in Fargo? What’s the moral of the story here?

  • It’s the simple pleasures in life that matter. At the finale, Marge has wrapped up the case and she and Norm can look forward to their forthcoming baby and celebrating the fact that his art has been chosen for a minor stamp. These victories may appear rather humdrum, unglamorous, and anticlimactic, but they are important to Marge and Norm.
  • The meek shall inherit the earth. Consider that the villains, despite all their planning and efforts, were not successful. Their pursuit of a little bit of money, according to Marge, was futile and destructive. Marge cannot understand their petty and materialistic motivations. At the end of the movie, we are left watching a scene of simplistic domestic bliss, which may appear as a boring reward or trifling vindication to us. But it’s an affirmation of the abiding power of everyday, common, downhome people and the affection they share.
    • Marge and Norm are the characters left to inherit the ending of the movie. They are like the three-cent stamps—often overlooked, not as important, popular, or attractive as the full-postage stamp, but they can serve a significant purpose when needed.
  • Ignorance is bliss: Marge and Norm may be unflappable Midwesterners, and their tastes may be relatively plain, modest, and unsophisticated, but they appear happy.
  • Telling a tall tale. It’s no coincidence that the Coen brothers show us a statue of Paul Bunyan multiple times and that the name of the bar where Carl and Gaer meet two hookers is the Blue Ox, harkening to Bunyan’s pet animal Babe. Bunyan, who wielded an ax, was a larger-than-life legendary folk hero associated with tall tales and exaggerated folklore. It’s fitting, then, that Gaer also employs an ax in Fargo – the weapon he uses to murder Carl.
    • These associations suggest that, despite the movie stating that it’s based on a true story, Fargo is a modern tall tale of sorts.
    • Remember, too, that the film’s tagline is “A homespun murder story.” The word “homespun” makes it sound like the Coen brothers wove this tale out of whole cloth.
  • Life can often divvy out a raw deal. Interestingly, many characters use the word “deal” throughout the movie: “This is my deal,” “So what’s the deal?” “We had a deal,” “A deal’s a deal,” “We had us a deal here for nineteen-five,” “Let’s just finish up this deal here,” “They want my money, they can deal with me,” “Yeah, the deal was the car first then the $40,000,” and “Don’t sound like too good a deal.”
  • Isolation. Recall the birds-eye overhead shot of Jerry walking to his automobile after his request for money is turned down. Reflect on how remote and alienating the hideout location is that Carl and Gaer take refuge in. Ponder how few pedestrians or motorists you see in the same outdoor field of view as Jerry, Carl, Gaer, or Marge. And give thought to how the expansive white snowy canvas makes objects stand out as detached and contrasting.

What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?

  • Some would argue that the movie comes across as too condescending or belittling of its Midwestern characters. Perhaps the film can be viewed today as more insensitive and overtly stereotypical of Minnesotans.
    • Bright Lights Film Journal essayist Robert Castle wrote: Fargo depicts “a society stupefied by its hypothetical aspirations. At the end, Marge and Norm stare at the nature show, little realizing they are approaching nature’s fixity and flatness. Marge will feed the baby growing in her womb as the bark beetle fills itself, to give birth in the spring. A new generation will arrive. Any smarter or any better? The Coen Brothers appear skeptical.”
    • On the other hand, the filmmakers seem to have compassion and respect for Marge and Norm and the honest, humble Midwestern values they represent.

What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • One of its most treasured gifts is the personage of Marge Gunderson and the personification of her by Academy award-winning actress Francis McDormand. The Coens have created one of the great cinematic characters of the last 25 years in Marge, a thoroughly likable heroine who, at first glance, would appear to be physically and mentally incapable of solving this crime and apprehending the offenders but proves to be as resourceful as she is intuitive, perceptive, disarming, and shrewd. And it isn’t enough that the brothers merely chose a woman as their intrepid protagonist: she’s also in her third trimester of pregnancy and a fan of the simple pleasures in life, including fast food, watching TV, and making conversation with locals.
  • A second greatest gift is the talent for black comedy that the Coens so adroitly exhibit in Fargo. Granted, this picture may not be bust-a-gut funny, nor is it intended to be categorized specifically as a laugher. But Fargo is often comical and uncomfortably so, even in its darker sequences – such as when Carl tries to cope with a profusely bleeding face or Gaer uses a two-by-four to shove his partner’s leg through the wood chipper. The humor helps take the edge off the graphic violence and disturbing scenes, and it also demonstrates that life is often unintentionally amusing, even when human beings don’t intend to be funny or situations seem dire. Ethan and Joel Coen expertly balance the tonality of Fargo by seesawing between dark and light moments, sometimes within the same shot or scene. That takes considerable skill and not a small amount of confidence.
    • In an interview, Joel Coen said: “The comedy would not have worked if the film had been shot as a comedy, instead of sincerely and directly.”

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