Last time I wrote about my spotty theater going record, and that I'm slowly catching up, by the miracle of DVD rental and streaming video, on important movies that I've missed over the years. I've already talked about Do The Right Thing, and this time out move on to the Coen Brothers' 1996 effort Fargo.
I have always had an uneasy relationship with the Brothers Coen, in the sense that they are undeniably talented, original film makers; among the most original out there today. But at the same time they can present a rather gloomy view of human nature. Nihilistic is usually the word used to describe their work. Their Academy Award winner No Country for Old Men is an extreme example of this. But every so often they do allow some light to poke through, like in A Serious Man, which I reviewed here a few months ago. The light I speak of is a sense they give of liking their characters, even if they are flawed or a little off kilter (or maybe because of this reason). Fargo is a movie that blends these two aspects of the Coen's personality together; light and dark, in a most cleaver way. When I've spoken to people about this movie over the years it's usually the dark nihilism that strikes them, and the sometimes humorus, matter of fact way it's presented. But after finally seeing it after all these years I saw something else besides. Though values lessons are not something the Coens are known for, Fargo contains one, even if you have to be paying attention to see it.
William H. Macy plays the hapless Jerry Lundegaard. He works for his rich father-in-law Wade (Harve Presnell) who employs him as a salesman at his Minneapolis car dealership but has no confidence in him, not letting Jerry move any higher in the corporate structure. Jerry is over extended financially and is blocked out by Wade from an investment plan he had thought up himself and that he was hoping would bring a big windfall. Even before this disappointment he was plotting to have his wife (Kristin Rudrüd) kidnapped by some small time crooks (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare), who he would share the ransom with. Needless to say everything goes terribly wrong. Murders ensue, and rural South Dakota police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, in her Oscar winning role), is left to pick up the trail.
Marge is sort of like a female Columbo; not bumbling like the Peter Falk character comes off as at first, but unassuming. She seems more like a cheerfully fastidious house wife with a badge, but like Columbo proves to be much sharper, and more tenacious, than she at first appears.
Most people focus on the violence in the movie, which is harsh, and at times comically gruesome, if such a thing is possible, or else the quirky regional accents and eccentricities of the characters draws people's attention. But there is also a tender story hidden amid the blood and you betcha's. Marge is seven months pregnant, married to a artist and lives a comfortable middle class existence. Her husband (John Carrol Lynch) is dutiful, getting out of bed early to make Marge eggs when she gets called in the wee hours to go to the crime scene. Amid the marital bliss Marge wonders if there isn't something more out there than her comfortable but humdrum domestic life. When she hears from a man from her past she arranges a rendezvous while she's in Minneapolis following a lead on the case. It's just an innocent stop off for a drink (don't panic, she has a Diet Coke), but she quickly has misgivings and backs herself out of the situation. She comes to appreciate the things she already has, and counts her blessings instead of grasping for more.
This stands in contrast to all the other major characters in the story. Jerry, the kidnappers, and even to a certain extent Wade want more than what they have or have agreed upon as compensation and are constantly conniving, lying, cheating or simply forcing their will to get it. In their constant grasping they leave a trail of destruction that eventually turns back on them. As Marge drives one of the culprits away in her police cruiser she is truly shaken by all the carnage left in the wake of this plan gone terribly wrong. She asks if all this was really worth a little money, and why aren't people happy with what they have. In a way she is asking this question of herself as well.
The film ends with Marge and her husband on the couch watching TV, arms around each other's shoulders. He tells her that his painting won a competition by the Postal Service, and will be featured on a thee cent stamp. He's disappointed by this since it's such a small, unimportant denomination, but Marge reassures him that he should be happy; people always need those small stamps when rates go up and they need to make up the difference. Again; be satisfied and count the blessings, don't grasp after things that you think will make you happy. That grasping will only make you more unhappy and possibly hurt others.
There is something very Hindu about this lesson, but Catholic as well. Greed is one of the capital sins, and while we may explain its effects differently, those effects are the same. Greed is a disordered love of riches, and can lead people to steal, cheat lie, and even kill to get it. In less extreme, but still destructive, cases it leads to selfishness and an inability to share what we have with those in need.
Fargo takes place in 1987, which is really irrelevant to the story other than the choice of cars featured. The story is billed as being true but the Coens admit that this is deceiving. They took elements from various real cases but the scenario itself, and the characters themselves are completely original. They felt that this conceit allowed them to get away with things audiences would only accept if they thought it really happened.
Fargo and Do The Right Thing are very different pictures, so trying to compare and contrast them would be forced. But when a movie is fifteen or twenty years old it's safe to ask how it holds up. Both do, but arguably Fargo does better. Do The Right Thing is very much a product of its time, as I wrote before, and makes many references to contemporary events that may not mean anything to new viewers today. It reminds me a bit of some movies that came out in the late sixties like Medium Cool and Easy Rider that addressed issues relevant during the Vietnam War era. These films were praised as edgy and ground breaking when they were released, but today seem more like quaint relics from a time capsule. Fargo, though claiming a period, tells a purer story with universal themes so that when it's happening really doesn't effect how we understand what's going on. Do The Right Thing for the most part is saved from being a museum piece because issues of racism and economic inequity are still with us. It helps to know the particular context of the story, but isn't essential. Plus, Spike Lee is an artist, not simply a pamphleteer, so the movie can be appreciated on aesthetic terms apart from the message, though unlike Fargo the message is impossible to miss.