by David Schleicher
I first saw Fargo when I was in high school. I loved it, but I could barely describe it.
And those accents!
In college…we couldn’t get enough of it. Everyone had to get initiated into the cool club of hipster film watchers who could quote it and speak the lines and make up their own lines in….those accents. It was a pre-YouTube meme.
But Fargo – what was it then? Can its suchness be defined by what we see on screen?
Let’s examine – This is a true story; they lie to us.
The first image is of obscured white-washed wilderness. Is this a desert? No. There’s snow. A tow truck.
We hear Carter Burwell’s noirish fairy tale of a music score.
This is F A R G O, they announce.
Where is it?
Fargo is hardly in its own film, present for only one scene – a middle-ground for a meeting amongst Jerry Lundegard (William H. Macy), a funny-lookin’ fella named Carl (Steve Buscemi) and an unseemly near-silent murderous Nordic lug (Peter Stormare).
The rest of the film takes place in Brainerd and the Twin Cities.
What is it now?
What starts outs as an off-kilter crime film where a botched kidnapping turns into “this execution type deal” evolves into a wicked black comedy and then transcends itself to become a philosophical meditation on life.
Perhaps Fargo is a state of mind?
“There’s more to life than a little money,” our heroine Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) tells that murderous lug after catching him disposing of the kidnapped and his funny lookin’ partner by way of the infamous wood chipper. “Doncha know that? I just don’t understand it.”
Fargo, oh you betcha! It’s funny as hell but it is so much more than just the accents.
Jerry Lundegard doesn’t start with the “Heck d’ya means” and “Oh geezes” until he becomes increasingly more exasperated by his own escalating incompetence in attempting to cover up a series of bumbling crimes. Ya darn tootin’ he’s mad.
Marge, on the other hand, is straight to the point from the get-go. “I think I’m gonna baarfe.” Her powers of deduction lead her to nab her men even while 7-months pregnant.
Heck, she’s got super powers – and no wonder Mike Yanagita gets all weepy when he thinks about what a super lady she’s always been.
But it’s those small moments that make it undeniably funny – Marge’s interview of the goofy gum-smacking truck-stop hookers, the idiotic zombified niceness of the cashier at the diner where Jerry convinces his father-in-law to pay a ransom on a kidnapping Jerry arranged, and the complete disinterest of the call girl Carl tries to impress by taking her to the Carlton Celebrity Room to see Jose Feliciano.
The Coens also displayed a hilarious knack for sucking the seriousness out of dire situations, like when Jerry tries to comfort his son Scotty after Scotty’s mother is kidnapped and on the back of the kid’s bedroom door is a poster for “The Accordion King” – a fat smiling idiot in the Alps looking down on this hot mess in the Twin Cities.
But there’s darkness underneath the polite weirdness of the Upper Midwest. And the film bounces back and forth between violence and absurdity with a devilishly self-aware aplomb.
Heck, there’s even a nod to Blue Velvet when Marge and Norm are watching a bark-beetle nature special while lying in bed.
And then there are those mallards, not unlike David Lynch’s beetle-eating robin at the end of Blue Velvet – Norm’s mallards. Symbols of strength, justice and the straight path.
After Marge rounds-up the bad guys, Norm announces one of his mallard paintings is going to be put on the 3-cent stamp.
“Heck, Norm, we’re doing pretty good,” Marge says.
And for all of its stand-out comedic moments, there’s no moment more earnest and true than that.
And it’s that simple truth that makes Fargo, beyond the belly laughs and the accents and the wood chipper, the greatest thing the Coen Brothers have ever given us.