This month marks the 20 year anniversary of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, a film that has since been hailed as one of the best films of the ’90s, and has also spawned two incredible seasons of television. So… What Makes It Great? As always, there will be spoilers.
The Tragedy of Jerry Lundegaard
The entire plot of Fargo is set in motion by the idiocy of Jerry Lundegaard, a used car salesman in Minnesota. His life falls apart around him like a Shakespearean tragedy, but he was never a king or well-respected man. There was never much of a rise at all, just a fall. From the beginning, we already know he owes some money and is at his last straw.
For just $40,000, Jerry is willing to let his own wife be kidnapped so her father will pay up the bail. It is such a ridiculous plan that even the kidnappers Carl Showalter (a scene-stealing Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (an ice cold Peter Stormare) are confused by it. It gets set in motion, but of course it’s messy.
Jerry starts the movie as a professional, slimy used car salesman who tricks customers into paying more than they agreed to. There’s that famous scene near the beginning when he argues with a married couple about paying for true coat. The man goes on and on about having a deal, but Jerry talks circles around him and gets his way in the end. Jerry keeps up his professional facade perfectly, and he is in control the whole time.
As the scheme begins to fall apart, and Jerry is under investigation for the stolen car he gave to Carl and Gaear, his professionalism starts to fall apart. His “Minnesota Nice” facade gradually crumbles like the kingdom of Macbeth. In early scenes, like so many other Minnesotans, Jerry has gone out of his way not to swear, intentionally using other words. This is of course contrasted to the constant swearing of Carl Showalter, clearly showing him as an outsider. It is not until the second investigation scene with Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) that Jerry swears, saying “Damn” twice. It’s mild, but for a man like Jerry, at this point his transformation is complete. This is the point in a tragedy where the villain knows he has been defeated and does something incredibly pathetic. In Jerry’s case, this is driving away and hoping not to get caught.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Jerry’s tragedy is that there was a way for him to get the money he needed without committing a crime. His father-in-law Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) is also his boss. Jerry tries to convince Wade to lend him $750,000 for some real estate that he found, but Wade won’t do it, saying he’s not a bank. Wade assumed Jerry was giving him the opportunity, and he does offer him a finder’s fee. Here’s the thing—the finder’s fee Jerry assumes he’ll get is 10%. That’s $35,000 more than he needs to pay off what he owes, but he’s both 1) Too insulted by this to notice and 2) Too caught up in his villainous scheme to think straight. He could have taken the money, and it would have all been taken care of.
William H. Macy’s performance is incredible. He is the perfect actor to portray the fall of an everyday guy. It’s such a shame he didn’t win the Oscar here, but if it makes you feel better, he did lose to Edward Norton in Primal Fear. That’s such a great performance too… Oh wait, what? Edward Norton didn’t win either? Who did?
Oh yeah. Well, if we’re being fair, William H. Macy really should have been nominated in the Best Actor in a Leading Role category anyway.
That One Scene
You know the scene in Fargo that’s the most memorable and meaningful part of the movie? The one everyone was talking about after the movie ended? No, I’m actually not talking about the wood chipper scene, but a short, wordless scene that tells us everything we need to know about Jerry Lundegaard. Wade has just rejected Jerry’s request for a loan, and Jerry walks out into the parking lot where his windshield has frozen over. He tries to scrape it off, but there’s always another layer. Just like his scheme, he can never wipe it all away. Layers are always going to fall on top before he peel back the ones that already exist.
This is the first time we see Jerry letting out all of his frustration, taking it out on something that didn’t do him any harm. The scene also shows that Jerry is completely alone. It starts with a bird’s eye view of the parking lot, with only his car in view. Later, he looks around, but there is no one there. Jerry has isolated himself and driven off everyone close to him.
Pure Good vs. Pure Evil
Sure, there are all shades of characters throughout Fargo—Jerry and Carl are bad, but their motivation is money. Wade is a decent guy, but he goes about things in a prideful way. At its heart, though, Fargo concerns the conflict of absolute good (Marge Gunderson) and absolute evil (Gaear Grimsrud).
Gaear doesn’t seem all that motivated by money. Sure, he wants to divvy up things 50/50 with Carl, but that’s just being fair. Gaear is in it for a mere $20,000 and however much the car will be split up for. This is simply living money, enough to let him go on and do more evil. Carl, on the other hand, makes Wade pay up $1,000,000, unbeknownst to Gaear. Carl is doing it for a fortune.
Gaear doesn’t say much, doesn’t seem to get joy out of much (except perhaps pancakes), and his decision making is processed evil. He shoots both the officer who pulls him over and the couple who drives by, simply because he knows a track will be left. When he feeds Carl to the wood chipper, it’s because he fears Carl will run his mouth to the police. It’s not an emotional struggle for Gaear. He’s a sociopath and he’ll do what he thinks needs to be done.
Gaear’s evil is contrasted with policewoman Marge Gunderson, who represents pure good. Every decision she makes is to help solve the case, helping goodness and order be restored. She doesn’t solve the case right away, because she is such a good person that she’s too trusting. It takes an awkward encounter with an old classmate (Steve Park) for Marge to realize how well people can lie when they really want something.
What Goes Around
Fargo also seems to have a subtle theme of karma. In the aforementioned scene where a customer insists to Jerry that “We had a deal,” Jerry is indifferent, knowing exactly what he is doing. However, this is later thrown back in Jerry’s face with Carl. Carl had originally promised Jerry $40,000, but he is now insisting on keeping all the money because “Blood has been shed.” Jerry responds with, “Now he had a deal here. A deal’s a deal.” Suddenly, Jerry is stuck in the same position of his customer from earlier, screwed out of a deal.
In the parking garage shoot-out where Wade shows up to pay the ransom instead of Jerry (Carl’s now screwed on a deal, hmmm), both Wade and Carl are shot. Carl is shot once in the mouth. If there’s one defining trait about Carl, it’s that he talks too much. Wade is shot multiple times in the heart, the part of him he has been using too much. Wade has been insistent on delivering the ransom money, because Jean is his daughter, not just Jerry’s wife. It’s ultimately pride, sure, that makes him deliver the ransom money instead of Jerry, but he would say he’s using his heart.
The leads in Fargo are all spectacular, and Frances McDormand won an Oscar for her brilliant work. However, Fargo is also populated by side characters who may only appear in a scene or two, but all manage to not only be memorable, but help solve the case. Through these characters, the Coens glorify the neighbors of these tight knit communities. Sure, they talk funny and may not be the most exciting people, but they’re good people nonetheless.
Take for example Mr. Mohra (Bain Boehlke). Sure, his scene is funny in the way he tells the story about Carl Showalter, but he also delivers the key clue as to Carl and Gaear’s location. John Carroll Lynch is only in a few scenes as Marge’s husband, Norm, but we immediately know what kind of marriage they have. When she is woken up to report to a crime scene, he immediately gets up to make her breakfast. When Marge says “You know Norm, we’re doing pretty good” at the end, we believe it. Their baby will grow up in a world with some terrible people, but will be raised by incredibly loving ones.
The reason a television show was created from Fargo is that it exists in such a rich world. The communities and the people all feel real, and while it may not be a place you want to live, you can at least sympathize with the locals. It’s an incredibly colorful film, as are all the Coen Brothers’ films, and it’s a great one to start with if you have never seen one.