Copyright © 2011
by James Clark
With its signature whiteout desolation and intriguingly wide-faced protagonist making difficult headway in its midst, Fargo (1996) seems to invite us to engage its ice-hard slipperiness in a carry –through including Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964). Though both films do indeed share a peculiar agitation, their wealth of strange complexities and beauties dictates separate investigations. Not that it wouldn’t be fun mixing a cocktail comprising cosmopolitan chic and a ripple where a kid decorates his bedroom with a poster for “The Accordion King.” But, along that very sightline we are snapped out of complacency, when the boy’s mom addresses the decadence of his report card in this way: “Do you know what “disparity” means? You’re not a D student [that is to say, a mediocrity; hold that thought]…That’s why you’re not going out [for the hockey squad].” His evincing a great difference between a potential and an actual outcome is a condition that takes us by the throat as emergent in the School of Hard Knocks which this movie puts us through (its copious blood and gore being only a relatively light foretaste of the real horror lurking within its square-dance patter).
Often thought to instil a current of film noir into the outset of the twenty-first century, Fargo’s crime narrative—occupying the lion’s share of the action—in fact shows errancy by pronounced exponents of material well-being with no touching redeeming qualities at all, the doom of which impresses us not with ardently contested aspirations undone (nor with a poetic justice), but as capping a critical mass of disparity into which the one and only seriously conscious entity, “Marge,” the small-town chief of police who closes the case, must struggle to make a life. (At the end, having just taken out the engines of a cataclysmic blood-bath, she comes to bed, joining her husband, “Norm,” a duck-painting and –sculpture practitioner of an artistry that must once have led her to believe he was a cut above the norm. The TV set is on, and he tells her, “They announced it.” Expanding upon that ambiguous gambit, it turns out the big news was his having had one of his ducks chosen for a 3-cent stamp. He’s a bit morose about this, since, after all, how many people buy 3-cent stamps? Marge points out that small denominations are in demand at times of rate increases, and this cheers him up a bit. She says, “It’s terrific! I’m so proud of you!” She would probably be trying hard not to recall how closely his heavily lidded eyes resemble those of the serial killer she just rounded up and jailed.)
As if to totemically exorcize a syndrome of diminishment, physically apparent in the flatlands of the Snow Belt (the university hockey team so many of the characters are devoted to being known as “the Gophers”), leading one to feel but a speck under that omnipresent sky, settlements of the Northern Plains are dotted with towering wooden figures representing an imaginary overachiever of the region’s Lakeland forestry, namely, the lumberjack, “Paul Bunyan,” and his fitting companion, a gigantic blue ox, named, “Babe.” Marge’s hometown and place of employment, Brainerd, sports a Big Paul, right by the two-lane on which a Howdy Doody-like car salesman, “Jerry,” would have hauled through a blizzard one of the new models, a Sierra—for a mountain-envious market—to the King of Clubs bar in Fargo to allow a couple of half-wits, “Carl” and “Gaear” to take possession en route to kidnapping his wife (the noted disparity-detector), for the sake of prying a ransom from her rich daddy to put to rest some understandably disparate business decisions. While some ragged reasoning—Carl, as we learn in what follows having a close affinity to the boob tube, happily repeating his latest cull, “I’m not gonna sit here and debate with you, Jerry”—vies with some lower-drawer Bluegrass (“Turn me loose and set me free”), our attention strays to a clutch of geriatric pool players and then (recalling its component of the Rockabilly ambient number, “Ace of Spades”) to Pulp Fiction’s Vince and Mia doing some bonding at “Jackrabbit Slim’s,” before our encounter with the larger (more Bunyanesque) and more violent operative, Gaear, asking from within the Sierra, “Where is pancakes house?”; and we will ask in our turn, “How does one (like Marge) survive amidst such an unending blizzard of enervation?”
On witnessing the credibility-confounding taskmasters—“You’re tasking us to perform this mission?”—in the process of waylaying “Jean,” we are given a brutal foretaste of the more pristine issue of entrapment. She is in the living room of her suburban house in the “Twin Cities” (that regional obsession with behemoths always on tap)—Carl will point out to a near-catatonic Gaear (reproving him along lines of the region’s loquacious forte and also inadvertently mooting an alternative, “That’s a fountain of conversation, man. Would it kill you to say something…to chat, keep our spirits up? Total fuckin’ silence! Two can play that game, Smart Guy!”), on the drive into the task, “There’s the tallest building in the Midwest, after the Sears Building in Chicago…”)—watching a local morning television show and brightening at the announcement of a contest to join the host and hostess on a “Riverboat trip down the Nile,” to shake things up. Immediately on seizing upon that escape, she notices a hooded figure at the window, he smashes it, and they both pursue her into her bedroom, shredded with terror that becomes more concrete in her pitching downstairs entangled in a shower curtain. They drive her (bound and shrouded with a black sack over her head) back up to the Brainerd district, arrive at a cabin hideaway (on Moose Lake), allow her to bolt from the Sierra and flounder around the yard like a chicken with its head chopped off, at which Carl goes into hysterics of glee and Gaear opens his eyes wide. Before reaching that recreational venue, the soldiers of fortune put on a display of the volcanic proportions of the normality they have embraced. (Even before setting out for the Twin Cities, they hook up with two hookers at the Blue Ox Inn, on the outskirts of Brainerd, do their transactions and then, each couple snuggled in adjacent beds like high school sweethearts, they soak up the gyroscopic assurances of “The Tonight Show.”) Driving North in the night, they are pulled over for forgetting to affix temporary tags on their dealer’s plates, Gaear blows away part of the State Trooper’s head, blood welling up as from a (n obligatory) mountain with volcanic pop, then, leaving Carl to dispose of the body, pursues a car whose occupants have happened by and seen the mess, finds it overturned, drills in the back the fleeing male driver and shoots at point blank range the young woman passenger trapped within.
It is at this point that Marge comes aboard and begins to give us a glimpse of how she figures amidst the land of such giants. It is, moreover, the carnage catching her flat-footed that allows us a close-up of her modus operandi. The phone wakes her up and she receives the report as if it were about kids smashing some big windows. “Oh…hey…where? Yaa…oh geez…Be there in a jiff.” She doesn’t feel it’s anything she can share with Norm, the panning shot over the art studio with its sweet ducks getting us started with the idea that the homebody is not up to being tasked with carnivores. “Oh, Hon. You can sleep.” He had prepared her a breakfast (eggs, of course) she didn’t have time to finish. So he ties into her leftovers, only to be tasked with her coming back in and announcing—with no apparent urgency —“ Hon, prowler needs a jump.” Getting an electrical charge from that drowsy panda is a disparity that starts us wondering how come comedy has so quickly supplanted horror. We cut to the snowy barrens where the witnesses lie mangled but Marge is struck by the muffin and coffee her subordinate offers her. “Oh! What you got there…?…Thanks a bunch!” He misses the point…but she does get around to referring to the crime scene. “Triple homicide…Aahh…gee…” Then, doing a bit of overdue sleuthing, she brings it all back to the world as it hits her. “From his footprints he looks like a big fella.” Being pregnant she has a bout of morning sickness into the snow, and then becomes happy to let her associate know, “Well that passed. I’m hungry again.” It begins to dawn on us that this straightaway transcending of malaise is a kinetic resource Marge has honed into a variant of folk art. (Still negotiating through her cobwebs, she looks into the overturned vehicle and all she can say is, “It’s in the head and the hand here. I guess that’s a defensive move.” But immediately after that she nails the whole choreography about being stopped by the cop and witnesses coming by and having to be removed. She wraps up her analysis, with, “I’d be surprised if our suspect is from Brainerd”—a touch that includes her ongoing testing of the allowances of her homeland.) While ostensibly the narrative launches a counterattack by forces of justice upon forces of evil, you can see that what’s really going on is Marge feeding some ungainly evidence into a navigational (righting) device only she, among her compatriots, knows how to operate. They check out the dead Trooper, having been dumped in a field, and she can only remark, “He looks like a nice enough guy”—hardly an impassioned cri de coeur from one upholder of the law to a fallen soulmate.
In contradistinction to that latter model of sensibility galvanized to the point of effectively obviating (offending) an easy going norm, Marge demonstrates, to strangely comedic lengths, a cleaving to the patois and reflexive cordiality of media-honed, facile domesticity. There is a brilliantly droll scene where the Chief, perhaps beaming in from Andy Griffith, interviews the belles from the Blue Ox for the sake of discovering the appearance and whereabouts of their hard-to-ignore clients. They tell her about their home towns—“I’m from Shasta…”/ “I’m from La Soeur (pronounced “le sewer”)—the latter even being so good as to give Marge a tepid taste of her high school pep song (“Go Bears”). The smaller girl describes Carl as “funny lookin’.” Encouraged to elaborate, she tells Marge, “He was like everyone, only funnier.” The bigger girl says that Gaear “looked like the Marlborough Man…”/ “They said they were headed to the Twin Cities…Is this useful?”/ “Yaa…you betcha!” Marge continues to smile warmly toward them. “Yaa,” she nods. “Yaa,” they repeatedly nod, grinning from ear-to-ear. Over and above the exigencies of successful interrogation, our bell-weather of justice sees fit to do justice to the social network now extant.
The Coens provide her and her neighbors with a staggering and often hilarious repertoire of buzzwords by means of which to assure that they are all on the same page. At the crime scene, regarding the mutilated trooper, she’s on her knees in the snow and her eyes have a sharpness we haven’t seen til now. “There was another one…smaller…It’s a real shame…” But, straightaway it’s back to the goofiness this jurisdiction finds to be as essential as oxygen. “I wonder if Dave’s open yet. I just wanna get some nightcrawlers [for Norm],” whose zeal for ice fishing with live bait appears to give his artwork a run for its money. (At this stage Marge’s zeal for sporting goods seems to exceed her focus on the two-legged nightcrawlers.) On the drive into town she gently points out to the second fiddle that he’s missed the point that the “DLR” in the Trooper’s citation book refers to dealer’s plates, and expertly exits the possibly disconcerting lucidity by telling a joke about someone who couldn’t afford personalized plates so he changes his name to coincide with his license, “J3L 2404.” Sharing tag-lines like that (only later does Carl get down to stealing a set of tags for the Sierra) supersedes taking a stab at communication rising above the level of a ten-year-old. (In a preamble to breaking the news about his daughter’s kidnapping to his father-in-law, Jerry rehearses by the telephone in order to maintain circulating in the same channel of readily accessible probity. “Wade, it’s Jerry…I don’t know what to do!…It’s Jerry…It’s my wife, Jean…” Then we cut to Carl assuring the State Trooper. (“I wanna be in compliance…in full compliance.”) A crowning moment of this eruption of self-consciousness tending toward a kind of muscle memory comes at the point just after Carl murders Wade and a parking lot attendant, and an unorthodox energy (action) has become compelling. A member of Marge’s supporting cast at the Brainerd cop shop interviews, on a farm village street with a big grain elevator looming at Big Paul proportions, a geezer who had been doing some part-time bartending and had been consulted, by someone fitting Carl’s description, about neighborhood call-girls. “This little guy says, ‘I’m goin’ crazy out at the Lake…Where can I get some action?’”/ “I say, ‘What kind of action do you mean?’”/ “He says, ‘Woman action, of course!’”/ “I say, ‘This isn’t that kind of place.’”/ “He says, ‘Are you calling me some kind of jerk? The last guy who called me a jerk is dead now, and I don’t mean of old age. You wouldn’t want to get into that?’”/ “I say, ‘You got that right’….End of story.”/ “How would you describe him?”/ “A little guy, funny lookin’.”/ “It’s probably nothing…looks like it’s gonna turn cold…A front’s comin’.”/ “You got that right!”
While you couldn’t say she turns cold, on following up the dealer, in the Twin Cities, about the car with the partly noted plates (tracing of calls from the Blue Ox zeroing in on precisely which dealer), Marge steps just far enough out of her homespun sweetheart routine to get some work done, under the auspices of getting something right, righting, as posing for her some modifications of the habit of entertaining the productive potential of those locked away in disparity. A prelude involves looking up an old high school flame, “Mike,” living in the Twin Cities, who had phoned her and wakened them on seeing a TV report of Marge’s leading the investigation. (The only glimmer of attention to the case, on Norm’s part, occurs when, en route to giving his nightcrawlers a workout, Marge mentions having to spend some time in the Cities.) Whereas—in part due to being pregnant—Marge’s approach to nourishment had tended toward all-you–can-eat buffets, and her wardrobe, in part due to the stylistic priorities of the Brainerd Police Department, put special emphasis upon beige, on appearing, wide-eyed and a bit troubled, at the hotel dining room (Mike had emphasized, on her saying, “Nice place!”/ “You know, it’s the Radisson, so it’s pretty good,” and she had smiled and nodded approval) Marge had clearly tried to depart the mold—touches of red in the beige ground, and ordering only a Diet Coke. Though the rendezvous is a disaster—Mike starts with, “I always liked you…I always like you so much!”—the mere step out of Norm’s orbit is what registers here. “Better times.”/ “Better times.” (Right after, Carl is at a cabaret table in the same Big Town [about to lean on Jerry for a jump in cash flow], assuring a bored hooker that with the featured superstar, Jose Feliciano, “…you’ve got no complaints.” Jose’s selection is, “Let’s Find Each Other Tonight.”) After hearing from an acquaintance that everything Mike had said was a lie, she is driving over to check out Jerry’s alibi for a second time and her look is pensive and a little bit angry. With a barely discernible flintiness about her patented smile, she opens with the uncharacteristic, “I’ll keep it real short,” and asks Jerry to prove that there is no missing vehicle, since the call to his employee (who head-hunted Gaear as a safe bet) and the dealer plates of the war wagon are “connected.” He (with Wade’s bullet-riddled body in his own car trunk—Wade having put himself in harm’s way with Carl and having in turn put a bullet through the latter’s jaw) comes across as a bit crusty for a guy who often deploys the Gabby Hayes cheer, “Yer dern tootin’!” and she responds with, “Sir, you have no call to get snippy with me!” Catching sight of him racing off the premises, she becomes totally appalled at this course of transgressing “getting together”: “He’s fleein’ the interview! He’s fleein’ the interview!”
The bozo in her employ might have seen no point in having a look around Moose Lake, but on this day Marge is no longer in the mood to trust the assurances of the Gabby Hayeses of the world (her repeated little congeniality about her domestic bona fides, “I’m carryin’ a load here,” coming back to haunt her) and she promptly comes upon Gaear stuffing Carl’s body into a wood chipper, blood spraying for a considerable distance. He tries to flee the interview by way of the frozen lake, she brings him down with a bullet into his leg from her pistol, and, as she drives him into the Station (he paying special but [as always] silent attention to the Paul Bunyan statue, with its axe like the one he used on Carl) you can see that, although she won’t be singing “Happy Trails to You” anytime soon, she has renewed—at a somewhat augmented level—her subscription to the hominess of Roy and Dale. She goes over with him her discovery of Jean’s body (in a previous scene, her bound and hooded presence before a warmth-providing open oven, her heavy breathing emitting steam through the black fabric and evoking a roast turkey, represents the film’s cruellest image) and then, in forcing herself to matter-of-factly complete the tally with , “I assume that was your accomplice in the wood chipper,” she’s spot on once more, as to a goofy chipperness, but with its weird edge now unmistakable. She quietly berates Gaear, “And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than money. Don’t you know that? And it’s a beautiful day. I just don’t understand it.” There is a cut to a convoy of ambulances and a truck pulling the Sierra, pounding through a snowstorm as the soundtrack tolls a furious requiem.
The end-point, featuring Marge and Norm (who comes across as by and large even scarier than the mass murderers—Carl driven [however ineptly] to “keeping up spirits” and Gaear zeroing in [without success] upon the physical outcomes of silence), finds her coming back to processing the odd little spark. Has there ever been a more troubled, less sentimental and, at the same time, more strangely thrilling cinematic anticipation of parenthood? “Heck, Norm. We’re doin’ pretty good.”/ “I love you, Margie.”/ “I love you, Norm.”/ “Two more months.”/ “Two more months.”