...a unity of eyes and firelight...


In Film, Reviews on April 16, 2011 at 7:51 pm

Joel Coen, 1996

Fargo is often seen as the Coen brothers’ finest film – less silly than The Big Lebowski, less self-consciously philosophical than No Country for Old Men. Actually, despite being a superb film, I believe it is inferior to both of them. In fact, in many ways I see it as a sketch, a dress rehearsal for them.

Fargo introduces us to many of the Coen brothers tropes seen in The Big Lebowski and No Country – the briefcase full of money, the psychotic killer, the avuncular, good-natured central figure, bemused by the world. In this last case, the similarities between Fargo and No Country are obvious, with Frances McDormand and Tommy Lee Jones both highly competent officers of the law working in rural areas and surrounded by somewhat dull people who look to them as reassuring but modest leaders.

Both try to make sense of an overwhelmingly harsh world, McDormand’s final words to Peter Stormare, ‘Well, I just don’t understand it,’ echoing Lee Jones final words to his wife, trying to make sense of the world through his own dreams of his father, ‘out there in all that dark, and all that cold.’ And of course, both look to their unassuming spouses for support. The warmth shared here is wonderfully observed and contrasts sharply with the coldness and detachment of Stormare and Javier Bardem.

The comparison between McDormand, Lee Jones and The Dude is a little more complex. Still bemused by the world, still a kind of leader for his comically inept peers, but far less fervent in his attempt to make sense of the world. The man just wants his rug back.

This is partly why I see The Big Lebowski as the finest of the three films – The Dude is as much a passenger in his own story as the other two are the chiefs to which the surrounding characters look for leadership. And so his enforced adoption of some kind of managerial role in the grand old mix up becomes all the more comical, the way in which circumstances overtake him becomes all the more easy to relate to.

The final trope common to all three films is a recurring theme in many other Coen brothers pictures – the overt reference to the Western. Fargo starts with a Morricone-like score, while a ute ploughs through a blanket of snow. One can immediately draw parallels with the horse-drawn carriage traversing the desert.

The story of a lone lawman (or woman in this case) trying to bring justice to his (her) wild town is perfect fodder for such references. Of course, there are no horses, only cars. Cars that beep when the front doors are left open. And the love story between an old hired gun and a prostitute is replaced with disjointed and awkward stolen minutes with local ‘hookers’ in each town.

There’s enough of the iconography and thematic concern of the Western here not only to list the references, but actually to classify this as a Western itself. The most iconic of Hollywood film genres is not eulogised here, but energised.

In all of this, I have not mentioned the other main character in Fargo, the desperate car salesman played terrifically, and terrifyingly, by William H. Macy. Again and again we wince at just how pathetic he is, and wonder at just what kind of ‘trouble’ it is that he is in. Of course, we are never told exactly why it is that he needs all that money. In this respect we are reminded not of the stock characters of old Westerns, but actually of Willy Loman.

His vapid salutations and the transparently empty alacrity with which he tackles every problem grate on the viewer until he finally explodes with anger while de-icing his windscreen. After this, the vents of built-up pressure become more regular, with Macy losing it in his office, then with McDormand, and then finally in a motel room while being held down by police.

His forced, attempted geniality contrasts sharply with the easy amiability of McDormand and husband. By the time we are introduced to them, the scene has already been set; blood has already been shed. And then suddenly we are given the warmth of the expecting couple. For the rest of the film, this becomes the backdrop for the action.

As is common in the films of the Coen brothers, the attention to detail with the script is acute, with recurring motifs and endearing local patter. This serves as a gel to hold together the increasingly out-of-control happenings in Brainerd. We are told more than once, by independent observers, that Steve Buscemi is ‘kinda funny looking.’ Every time I heard McDormand or her husband say, ‘Oh yah?’ or ‘You betcha,’ it served to reassure me that all was not lost. Whatever kind of world we have that can create the sociopathic Stormare, the pathetically compromised Macy, or even McDormand’s manipulative old friend in ‘the Twin Cities,’ well we haven’t got it all wrong if we can also create these McDormand and husband.

So not their finest, but still a great film. And in many ways – thematically, aesthetically, in content and in screenplay – a prelude to the even greater films, (even greater Westerns) to come.


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