By Jacob Burgess
Fargo calls itself a “homespun murder story,” a phrase which fits the film perfectly. It tells the story of a man named Jerry Lundegaard. Jerry is a seemingly simple man, but behind his pleasant demeanour is a greedy, manipulative, selfish human being. Jerry believes himself to have outlined the perfect plan: Hire two thugs to kidnap his wife and split the $80,000 worth of ransom that will be paid by Jerry’s father in law (unbeknownst to the kidnappers, Jerry has told his father in law that the ransom is $1,000,000). The plan predictably goes wrong due to the incompetence of the hired thugs and, in the wake of the violence, Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson picks up their trail. In the end, Marge successfully solves the case, but by the time Jerry and the surviving kidnapper Gaear are finally in police custody, seven innocent people have been killed. Two of the dominant themes in Fargo are family and the consequences of greed, and elements of both are evident throughout the whole film.
The mood of Fargo is set within the first few minutes of the film. The opening sequence tells us that what we are about to see is a true story; out of respect for the dead, only the names have been changed. The screen then fades to white, and the sombre music we will hear throughout most of the film starts to pick up. We are looking at a country road under heavy snowfall. A lonely car proceeds down the road to Fargo, North Dakota. We haven’t even met any of the characters, but just from the music, the statement of truth, and the fact that the dead highway patrol officer can be scene on the cover of the DVD, the viewer gets a sense of the violence that will ensue.
The first scene is at a bar in Fargo, and the Coen brothers manage to create the world of a small town in North Dakota/Minnesota within the first few minutes of the film. The accents are pleasant, and within his first few lines of dialogue we get a good sense of the personalities of Jerry and the thugs (Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud). Jerry is polite, apologizing for his tardiness, Carl is easily irritated and very talkative, and Gaear is chillingly silent. Within the first five minutes of the film, we know that the story will be about Jerry’s plan. We are immediately skeptical of Jerry once we learn about it, and we can easily predict that something is going to go terribly wrong. When a confused Carl questions the logic of Jerry’s plan, Jerry assures him: “It’s real sound. It’s all worked out.”
We soon find out that this isn’t the first time Jerry has tried to steal money from someone. Throughout the film, we see a few instances where Jerry tries to rip off his customers at the auto dealership, and he tries to steal $320,000 from a loan on non-existent cars. Jerry’s problems stem from his constant refusal to live within his means, a stark contrast to the glimpses of Marge and Norm Gunderson living a quiet suburban life. He seems to be envious of his wealthy father-in-law, Wade. He brings Wade and his business partner some sort of deal in one scene yet seems to expect them to lend him his share of the input which amounts to $750,000. These instances indicate that Jerry’s decision to go through with his plan stems not from desperation but from greed. Jerry’s greed is the sole cause of all the action in the plot, but we see greed in many of the other characters too. We see it clearly in Carl, who stashes all the stolen money after murdering Wade; we see it in Gaear, who kills the state trooper, two witnesses, Jerry’s wife and eventually Carl over $80,000 and a Ciera; we even see it in Wade, who, at one point, suggests they offer the kidnappers $500,000 instead of a million for his daughter. As Gaear sits in the back of Marge’s squad car after his arrest, Marge says to him, “there’s more to life than a little money ya know.”
Family is also a main theme in Fargo. The Coen brothers grew up in Minnesota, and they were able to brilliantly recreate the quirky accents, the punishing winters, and the warm, cozy interior of a Minnesota residence. The second time we see Jerry, he is stepping through the door of his home, greeted by his busy wife and ignored by his intimidating father-in-law. The dynamics of the household are defined very quickly in these scenes. We learn that Jean and Jerry’s son, Scotty, doesn’t treat his parents with much respect (he leaves dinner halfway through to meet his friends at McDonald’s). Wade isn’t satisfied with their parenting and doesn’t seem to be very fond of Jerry, and Jerry seems to be rather distant from his wife and son. When he asks Wade about something that could “work out real good” for him, Jean, and Scotty, Wade replies: “Jean and Scotty never have to worry.” As the film progresses, we witness Jerry tear his family apart over “just a little money.” By the end, Scotty’s mother and grandfather are dead and his father is in prison.
Marge and Norm, on the other hand, seem perfectly content on living within their means. They seem to have a wonderful relationship and are eagerly awaiting the arrival of their child. Norm paints ducks for postage stamps and makes eggs for Marge in the morning, bringing her lunch at the precinct. It’s heartwarming. The last thing we see in the film is the familiar sight of Marge and Norm lying in bed together watching television, with Marge trying to cheer up Norm for not getting his painting on the 29-cent stamp. Marge and Norm are building a family, whereas Jerry has destroyed his.
Minnesota looks like a desolate wasteland in Fargo. We are delighted with many beautiful shots of snowfall in the dead of winter, creating a quiet, foreboding mood. After the slaughter of the state trooper and the witnesses, the screen transitions to a shot of a statue of the mythical figure Paul Bunyon. Bunyon wields an axe and wears a menacing grin, accented by the dark black sky and the light illuminating his face from below. This is, in fact, a real statue in Brainerd, but the Coens replaced the gentle smile of the original with what we see in the film. This statue foreshadows Gaear’s murdering of Carl by axe, and as Marge lectures Gaear near the end, he looks out the window and notices it as they drive by.
Fargo is a masterful film. It is comical, strange, mysterious, thrilling, and touching all at the same time. Although we aren’t meant to like most of the characters in the film, we can’t help but be fascinated by them. Carl and Gaear are incompetent, sociopathic murderers, but they are oddly pleasurable to watch. In one scene we laugh at them, in another we are horrified by them, and in a few scenes we get a little of both at the same time. Jerry is pathetic, greedy and ignorant, but for some reason we just love to hate him. This might have something to do with his misleadingly polite accent and use of phrases like “darn tootin’.” Marge is the opposite of these characters. She is kind, intelligent, resourceful, and determined. After all the violence that occurs in the action of the film, it is Marge and Norm that assure us that order will always trump chaos.