Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Great Movies: "Fargo"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Joel Coen, 1996.

Preconceptions: I first saw this movie in Lawrence, Kansas, in its original release. I liked it. Then I think I saw it on video at some point, maybe, and liked it then, too.

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Fargo not only survives a third viewing, it prospers on a third viewing. Even though I knew at any given moment what was coming next, there was still a lot of pleasure to be had in enjoying the details of the dialog and sets and in appreciating the craft that went into making one of the all-time great dark comedies.

The hazard of a third viewing, though, is that it tempts you to wax literary. For instance, why is this movie called "Fargo"? It's set mostly in Minneapolis, with the balance of the scenes in Brainard, Minnesota. Only the opening two or three minutes are set in Fargo, and even those are not significantly in Fargo, but just in a dingy bar that could be found anywhere in the American Midwest. Despite my better judgement, I'll propose here that "Fargo" is a sort of geographical pun, representing a desolate and wintery town of the imagination where dwell those that "Go" too "Far." Know what I'm sayin'?

Fargo tells a complex enough story, too, that during a rewatching you can reinterpret what is happening in the story. In previous viewings, for instance, I assumed that Jerry Lundegaard, the hapless, miserable, cringing villain of the film, was simply trying to raise capital for his business venture. Details suggest, though, that he is in deeper and more desperate financial trouble than that, for reasons that are unknown but can't possibly be good. Similarly, on previous viewings it seemed that the terrific character of Police Chief Marge Gunderson visited an old high school acquaintance while in the Twin Cities on police business. This time around, it seemed pretty clear that her police business in the Twin Cities is more motivated by her curiosity about the old high school acquaintance. Neither point is especially important to the narrative, but in both cases it deepens our appreciation of already very well developed characters.

Also, the music is interesting. A gentle little folk lullaby theme -- sez here it's a Norwegian folk song, "The Lost Sheep" -- plays quietly over the initial shot of a snow-choked highway, then swells with repeated strikes on the timpani into something sinister and forceful as a car drives into view. The tension between the soft lullaby and its louder, more threatening iteration undergirds most of the rest of the movie. Here, as everywhere in Fargo, polite daily life and menace are closer together than you expect.

Plot: Jerry, a desperate family man and crooked car salesman, concocts a Rube Goldberg scheme to squeeze money from his wife's father by having her kidnapped. The thugs he hires, unfortunately, are as stupid as he is, and everything goes violently wrong very quickly. Chief Marge is able to bring the cycle of violence to a close with quick wits and a steady trigger finger, despite being seven months pregnant.

Visuals: Fargo switches back between three visual modes: tidy, kitschy interiors; dark, drab interiors, and cold white snowscapes. In conjunction, they create a perfect setting for the characters' mounting desperation; they are trapped and claustrophobic in the interiors, but completely vulnerable to forces outside of their control when they step outside.

Dialog: The exaggerated upper-Midwest accents caused a bit of a flap when the movie first appeared. To say that the movie takes cheap shots at regional culture is to state the obvious. But that's satire for you. Fargo exaggerates to make the point that bad behavior can have its roots in stifling pressures of social conformity. It's not an incredibly original point, of course -- Fargo sits in a tradition that goes back at least to Sinclair Lewis' Main Street -- but it's a valid one. An oldie, but a goodie.

Prognosis: Fargo is probably the most violent of the movies we've covered so far in this project, and is emphatically not recommended for those who faint at the sight of blood. For all others, happily recommended as a great movie.


sister jen said...

What a great reading of this film! "Polite daily life and menace are closer together than you expect"; "trapped and claustrophobic in the interiors, but completely vulnerable to forces outside of their control when they step outside"; "bad behavior can have its roots in stifling pressures of social conformity"--! Besides-- "iteration" and "undergirds" in the same review--and right next to each other!

I bow to you.

Elizabeth said...

Yet another movie I haven't seen. Though if it were dubbed in Japanese, as the version you apparently saw was, I might go rent this one.

Elaine said...

We watch it every so often! and continue to love it. Moreover, lines from the film come in handy in family life.

Oh, and the habits of speech and accents? Not exaggerated!

gl. said...

fargo is one of my top 10 movies. i really, really love the suspense. i can't watch it very often, though, because of the gore at the end. gack!