Coen Bros: Fargo

Fargo is a remake of Blood Simple, insofar as they are both crime dramas without protagonists. Oh, one remembers Fargo ashaving a protagonist, but it doesn’t really. What it has is a likable main character, which is a different thing from a protagonist, and is something that Blood Simple doesn’t really have. Marge, the pregnant sheriff, is but one-third of the three-pronged narrative of Fargo, and does not show up until the beginning of Act II. Up until that point, it appears that the protagonist of Fargo is Jerry Lundergaard, the hapless, bitterly frustrated car salesman who plots to have his wife kidnapped. That would, in fact, make Marge the antagonist, the Javert to Jerry’s Jean Valjean. But, as the narrative develops, we find that Fargo is balanced between Jerry, Marge and Carl Showalter, the fuming, delusional, small-time crook whom Jerry hires to kidnap his wife.

I had a thought the other day while watching one of the Coen Bros’ movies. Most of them are period pieces, and even movies like Fargo and The Big Lebowski take care to take place before, say, 1995.  I puzzled about this for a while, but then I realized — a Coen Bros movie, by and large, cannot take place in a world where people have cell phones.  In a world where people have cell phones, communication is altogether too easy, and the plot of any Coen Bros movie could not take place in a world where people can easily communicate with each other.  (The Dude gets a cell phone from Geoffrey Lebowski, and it turns out to be the size of a suitcase and a significant source of humor.)  All their plots hinge on misunderstandings, missed communications and incorrect suppositions.

Marge and her husband Norm form one couple in Fargo, Jerry and his father-in-law Wade form another, Carl and his homicidal partner Gaear form a third.  Norm is an artist, which Marge thinks is wonderful, while Carl is, if not an artist, at least (in his mind anyway) an aesthete — he obsesses with the picture on his TV and is picky about which acts he takes his escort to go see (“It depends on the artist — with Jose Feliciano, you’ve got no complaints.”)  (The idea that Gaear ends up obsessing over the soap opera that Carl can’t get on his TV is one of the movie’s better jokes.)  Jerry is certainly no artist, but he is a kind of visionary — not only does he have the parking-lot idea, he also has the pretty-original idea of hiring someone to kidnap his own wife.

(Is it thematically important that the character on the soap that Gaear watches is announcing she’s pregnant, while a pregnant sheriff is, at that very moment, heading his way?)

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: Fargo is, to date, by far, the Coens’ warmest, most generous presentation of law enforcement agencies.  In Blood Simple the police are absent, in Raising Arizona they are bumbling buffoons, in Miller’s Crossing they are bought-and-paid-for thugs, in Barton Fink they are bullying, bigoted mugs.  And yet, here we are in the cold, cold world of Fargo and Marge the pregnant sheriff is warm, sweet, chipper and unfailingly upbeat.

This is not to say that Marge presents a picture of a brilliant crime-fighter.  The amount of actual police-work done in Fargo would fit into the opening act of an episode of CSI.  Marge does a teeny bit of investigative work, but lets her one suspect slip away.  It takes a tip from a whole other part of town to break her case and then she happens upon her perp almost by coincidence.

(Students of directing take note: the scene between the hooded deputy and the hooded Guy With Shovel is a masterpiece of expository direction: a huge amount of information, none of which is terribly interesting, is presented without preamble or explanation, by two guys in hoods against a gray sky.  Once the exposition has been delivered, Guy With Shovel says “And that’s it.  End of story.”  By presenting the exposition at the same time as lampooning the need for such a scene, they solve two problems at once in an interesting way and create an unforgettable, emblematic scene.)

(Also worth mentioning is Marge’s interrogation of Jerry in Act III, surely one of the greatest interrogation scenes in the history of the genre.)

Justice is served in Fargo, but its vision of law and order is only slightly less bleak and chaotic than the one in Blood Simple (or No Country For Old Men).

TALKERS AND NON-TALKERS: Generally in a Coen Bros script, the non-talkers have the power and the talkers do not.  Fargo, with its population of Swedish immigrants in Minnesota, is a natural place for a story about talkers and non-talkers to take place.  Jerry is a talker, but his father-in-law Wade is not — his primary communications are strange, quasi-verbal grunts (someone with the proper technology could make a little one-minute version of Fargo consisting solely of Wade’s grunts, beginning with his non-conversation with Jerry in Act I and ending with the guttural wheeze that makes for his last words on Earth).  Carl, on the other hand, is very much a talker and his partner Gaear is very much not.  Marge, on the other hand, is matched with her husband Norm and her various not-as-bright-as-her deputies, who all seem like a good match for Marge on the verbal front.  But when Marge confronts would-be swain Mike Yanagita in Minneapolis, he is very much the talker while she sips her drink and crawls out of her skin.

(In Act I, Carl has a long speech about how Gaear doesn’t talk, then, in Act III, he bitterly complains “I’ve been listening to your fuckin’ bullshit all week.”  Either Gaear found something to talk about in the interim, or Carl is being delusional.  Given the evidence on hand, I’d guess the latter.)

MUSIC: The lush, grand orchestral soundtrack music is very much a commentary on the action.  Take the title sequence: a car appears out of the snow, heading toward the camera.  Nothing particularly interesting, but it’s given a weight and grandeur with the tragic Americana theme on the soundtrack (and also reminds me of the title sequence of Taxi Driver, with the titular vehicle appearing like a demonic beastout of a cloud of steam).  The characters of Fargo don’t listen to music like that — they listen to crappy renditions of cheesy pop tunes.  Carl takes his escort to see Jose Feliciano and “Do you know the way to San Jose” plays in the restaurant where Marge and Norm heap pounds of calorie-filled foodstuffs on their all-you-can-eat trays.  (Hey, could the Coens actually be making a connection between the two Joses?)  Unlike the musical schemes of their other movies, there doesn’tseem to be a “third music” in Fargo, the music of the “outside.”  The cops and the robbers and the civilians all seem to listen to the same crap.  (The Coens drive this home in a wonderful transition in Act I, where we see Jerry talking to Shep Proudfoot in the garage, then cut to Carl and Gaear driving on the freeway — the same song is playing on the radio in both scenes.)

THE MELTING POT: The overwhelming majority of characters in Fargo are Swedish-Americans: Gunderson, Lundergaard, Showalter, Gustafson, Grimsrud and Olson are all names that go flying by.  When a non-Swede shows up, it makes an impression: Shep Proudfoot is a Native American and Mike Yanagita is obviously Asian-American.  Both are outsiders to the world of the narrative, Mike more so than Shep, but they kind of balance each other, as Shep is definitely a non-talker and Mike is decidedly a talker.  Then there are two borderline  cases, Stan Grossman and Reilly Diefenbach — both are German names, and while the Midwest has almost as many German-Americans as Swedish-Americans, given that one is an accountant and the other is a lawyer, I fear they represent the movie’s resident Jews.  Then there is Carl’s unnamed escort, who seems to have a Jewish accent.  (And let’s not forget Jose Feliciano.)


1. Where does Carl take his escort for joyless sex after seeing Jose Feliciano?  It’s someone’s ratty apartment, but whose?  It’s not his — he mentions specifically that he does not live in Minneapolis.  And it shouldn’t be Shep Proudfoot’s since Shep insists that he doesn’t know Carl (although Carl seems to know Shep), he only knows Gaear.

2. What happens to Wade’s body?  Carl shoots him, and it’s implied that Jerry puts him into his car trunk, but then Jerry goes home with no scene indicating that he’s gotten rid of Wade’s body.  Instead, Jerry goes to bed (or says he does) and the next thing we know he’s lit out for the territories.  Did he ever dispose of Wade, or is Wade still in his car trunk outside the motel where he is arrested?

IT’S COLD: The weather in Fargo, like the Hudsucker building in The Hudsucker Proxy, is a character, a story element and a thematic hinge.  It is the thing that everyone, good or bad, strives against.  Marge’s police car is stalled by it, investigations are hampered by it, criminals make terrible decisions because of it.  I’m going to go ahead and come right out and say that the cold in Fargo is a metaphor for the capitalist system that all the characters operate within.  I’d have to watch it again to pick out exactly who complains about the cold and who does not, but let’s start with poor Jerry Lundergaard, surely the most indelibly drawn portrait of a weasel ever presented in an American movie.

Jerry needs a whole bunch of money.  He wants to buy a parking lot, and he also seems to be in some sort of trouble regarding a loan from GMAC.  (I’m unclear on the nature of Jerry’s trouble: he seems to have borrowed a bunch of money, using cars that don’t exist as collateral.  Or did he borrow the money in order to get the cars?  What did he do with the $340,000?  How does a car dealership operate?  Did Jerry borrow money to get cars to sell at his lot?  If so, what happened to the cars?  Did they ever exist?)  Another classic noir (and classic Coen) setup — an ordinary man wants to bust out of his social class and prove himself.  Jerry is sick of taking shit from his well-off father-in-law and his smirking accountant — he feels like he’ll never be a man until he stands up to these smug, guffawing blowhards.  So he comes up with this kidnapping deal, which will show his father-in-law that he’s a real man, and also defraud him of a million dollars.  Then, an unexpected turn of events.  Jerry’s other plan, the one about the parking lot, comes through, and Jerry enthusiastically pounces after it.  Then, just as quickly, his hopes are crushed; Wade isn’t going to lend him the money to buy the parking lot (“we’re not a bank, Jerry”).  Worse, Wade and Stan pretend kindness by suggesting it would be better if they move on the parking lot deal without Jerry’s participation, shutting him out of the deal completely.  Jerry, devastated, helpless and furious, slinks outside to find his car covered with ice (improbable, since the meeting with Wade and Stan didn’t take very long).  He starts scraping the ice from his windshield, then loses his shit, pounding and thrashing with his ice-scraper.  After he regains his composure, he sighs and picks up the scraper and goes back to scraping his windshield — there is nothing he can do about the weather, and there’s nothing he can do about the forces of capitalism that define his existence.

If you think this is a stretch, go back and watch all the scenes between Jerry and Wade and Stan — they talk about the wife’s kidnapping in the exact same terms they use for the parking lot deal — “This is my deal here” and “You’re not selling me a damn car, Jerry” and “Maybe if we offered them half a million.”  (Come to think of it, a handful of Fargo‘s most important scenes take place in parking lots).

Jerry has a lower-class mirror in Carl, who similarly fumes with rage regarding his place in the economic cosmos — while Jerry loses his shit in a parking lot for losing a million dollars, Carl loses his shit in a parking lot for losing four dollars.  (Later, of course, Carl loses his shit in a big way in a parking lot and, unexpectedly, gains a million dollars.)

Marge and Norm, while cheapskates (“Is it reasonable?” is Marge’s only question regarding a restaurant recommendation), feel at ease within this capitalist world.  They have made their peace with it.  Norm’s painting gets passed over for the 29-cent stamp, but Marge rejoices at it having been chosen for the 3-cent, then reminds her husband that “they lead a pretty good life.”  Settling for less is simply how they get through the day and maintain their dignity.

(“Whenever they raise the postage, people need the little stamps,” to me, is a last-scene speech on a par with Bogart’s monologue to Ingrid Bergman on the tarmac at the end of Casablanca.  It raises Fargo into the realm of poetry.)

(I also love that Marge slinks into bed next to Norm without saying a word about the quintuple homicide she just single-handedly solved, and Norm does not think to ask about it.)

And, not to push this metaphor too far, but Marge and Norm are, we would commonly say, “the salt of the Earth.”  Is it too much to note that salt is what Minnesotans use to melt snow?

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22 Responses to “Coen Bros: Fargo”
  1. stainedecho says:

    I’m absolutely loving your write-ups of Coen Brothers movies. I’ve only seen a few (Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy, and The Big Lebowski (which pretty much tops my “favorite movies” list)), but I’m really enjoying what you’re doing here.

    Can’t wait for the one on The Big Lebowski.

  2. “And, not to push this metaphor too far, but Marge and Norm are, we would commonly say, “the salt of the Earth.” Is it too much to note that salt is what Minnesotans use to melt snow?”

    And to really push it, if the temperature goes below 0 degrees Fahrenheit (which I understand it does pretty often in Minnesota winters), salt has no effect on ice at all…

  3. greyaenigma says:

    While not as adorable as Marge, the sheriff in No Country is very likable.

    And it also occurred to me that no one in that movie seems especially interested in changing their social status. At least none of the main characters. Some of them stand to gain, but that’s not really their primary concern.

    • Todd says:

      Oh, I strongly disagree. Moss finds $2M in a sample case, then spends the rest of the movie defending his right to it. That’s a clear case of American Dreamism, finding a suitcase full of money that will answer all your dreams. After all, one of the key lines in the movie is “How far would you go to get your $2 million back?”

      • greyaenigma says:

        My thinking was that he just didn’t seem very motivated by the money itself; he spends most of the time trying motivated by self-preservation.

        But I’m probably just suffering from sleep deprivation and mistaking his initial stoicism for near indifference.

        • yetra says:

          If his main motivation were simply self-preservation, he would have given up the money once the situation he was in with Chigurh was made clear.

          I think his initial motivation is the money, and later he becomes motivated by his need to not back down at any cost, no longer for the money, but for the principle, the need to be the victor. Self preservation, and protecting his wife, seem secondary.

  4. craigjclark says:


    1. I always assumed that Carl was staying in some ratty hotel when Shep came to beat the living tar out of him.

    2. And I always assumed that Wade’s body was still in the trunk of the car, waiting to be discovered, when Jerry was ambushed at the motel.

    • Todd says:


      Carl staying at a ratty hotel makes even less sense — how would Shep know where to find him?

      • craigjclark says:

        Re: TWO ANSWERS

        I’ve thought about this. Perhaps Carl called Gaear to tell him where he was staying in town (just in case there were any complications, heh), and Shep called Gaear after his visit with Marge. It’s a stretch, but it’s the best I’ve got.

        The alternative — that it really is Shep’s apartment — would only make sense if the arrangements had been made by Gaear in advance. Of course, throughout the film we see no contact between Shep and Gaear despite the fact that Gaear is the kidnapper that Shep vouched for.

        I guess what I’m getting at it is I’m grabbing at straws here.

  5. gazblow says:

    “(I’m unclear on the nature of Jerry’s trouble: he seems to have borrowed a bunch of money, using cars that don’t exist as collateral. Or did he borrow the money in order to get the cars? What did he do with the $340,000? How does a car dealership operate? Did Jerry borrow money to get cars to sell at his lot? If so, what happened to the cars? Did they ever exist?)”

    My assumption is that Jerry created bogus car loans to bogus customers to raise cash for his parking lot scheme thinking that when Wade invested he would be able to pay it back; maybe he needed to put some money down on the property to secure it. That’s why when Wade calls to discuss Jerry’s proposal, Jerry tries to get an alternate contact number for the kidnappers from Shep — he wants to call off the kidnapping. He must have used some of the money for the kidnapper’s new car but aside from that, I’m not sure what he did with the money. Perhaps he was saving it for his getaway.

    Side note: This was W.H. Macy’s breakout role. Just a few years prior to this, I was drunk with him in a bathroom listening to him drunkenly complain at top volume about the crappy direction his career was taking. Needless to say, I haven’t been drunk in a bathroom with him since.

    • Todd says:

      I have nothing to add to this post, gazblow, but I am compelled to take this moment to say that —

      — my daughter is drinking apple juice.

      This has nothing to do with your post, or with Fargo, but my daughter just happened along while I was reading your post and asked me, as only an adorable four-year-old moppet can, to please type the words “my daughter is drinking apple juice.” If you were here, you would understand that I have no choice but to comply.

  6. curt_holman says:

    Something I remember the most about Fargo is the one-two sequence of Marge ordering fast-food from a drive-up intercom — she sticks her head out of her window and said “Hello?” — which cuts to her eating the food in the car. You don’t ever actually see her interact with another person, conveying a sense of isolation.

    Thinking about that scene made me appreciate Fargo a little more. When I first saw it, I wondered why it seemed so inconclusive: not only does she not go into labor or give birth (one critic wondered if any film with a pregnant heroine has ever ended without a birthing scene, apart from this one), but there’s no summing-up scene with Jerry in jail, or even a return shot of the snowbound fence where the money was hidden, to be forgotten for God knows how long.

    What Fargo doesn’t show makes me focus more on what it does. It’s as if the cold, remote, at times vicious world of the film is so narrow and constrained that Marge’s optimism and goodness stand in even sharper relief.

    By the way, the Onion’s AV Club has a Coen brothers primer:

    • Todd says:

      The cut of Marge eating her food from Hardee’s is even better than you remember — in the background, there is a billboard for Miller Beer that reads “As if this town wasn’t cold enough.”

      On the other hand, she’s going to Hardee’s, which, although it’s not Arby’s (which is where she and Norm eat lunch), I also like to think that, after her near-miss with Mike Yanagita, she felt like she needed to re-connect with Norm, and so goes to a fast-food restaurant. So there’s something warm and charming about the scene too.

  7. One of the most significant parts of Fargo (maybe just to me) is the statement at the very beginning that the film was based on a true story, which it wasn’t.
    By doing this the brothers couldn’t include any dream sequences, imaginary scenes, as they’ve done in other films. They forced themselves to stick to (for want of a better word) reality.

    And oddly enough I had the samne thought about cell phones while watching No Country last week. It didn’t occur to me that all their films operate out of the here and now.

    And on the cell phone aspect affecting modern narratives, it would be damn difficult to make a film like Duel in this day and age. It just wouldn’t work.

    • Todd says:

      Fargo‘s realism (at least in relation to their earlier movies) is nothing compared to No Country, which feels like their least affected movie to date.

  8. Anonymous says:

    “in a wonderful transition in Act I, … we see Jerry talking to Shep Proudfoot in the garage, then cut to Carl and Gaear driving on the freeway — the same song is playing on the radio in both scenes”

    I remember this very happily. Virtuoso editing, both of sound and imagery, plays a huge role in the Coen Bros’ movies — it’s a big part of what makes the whole experience so, well, cinematic.


  9. mimitabu says:

    these entries are great reads (the comments too).

    i just saw No Country today (NUMEROUS SPOILERS FOLLOW). i fully agree about “american dream”-ism. it’s definitely a film i’d like to see a few times and think more about… all the stuff about chance/choice (and ballooning that out to be about social mobility) is pretty easy to get at, but peripheral aspects are more difficult…

    for example, the movie (in the end) doesn’t make any sense. the characters and their motivations make sense, but the mechanics of the plot do not run. who wanted to get the money back? why did the drug deal go wrong? say the mexicans were selling the heroin to the businessman. when they returned and got the heroin, did they give it to the businessman? surely they didn’t give it without receiving payment (just getting the tracking device would plainly not cut it). if the businessman paid for the heroin, surely he wouldn’t enlist the mexicans to help him find the money (so no double cross).

    it’s clear that chigurh is hired to recover the money from moss (though the timeline of this is murky). the relation of the businessman and the mexicans to the money and the heroin is unclear to the point of just plain not making sense. or am i missing something?

    …because if the story really doesn’t hang together, i don’t accept at all that this is a mistake (i’d mayyyybe accept that the book makes more sense and the coens wanted to use certain scenes but simply didn’t bother writing in the machinery to allow for those scenes, but i doubt it). what’s going on here? is there something to the plot not working in a movie where one character waxes philosophical about causality?

    • Todd says:

      I just came back from seeing No Country a second time, and while the plot made a lot more sense this time around, you are correct , I think, that it is not meant to make sense. I’ll get into this more when I do a post on it, but I think the horror that the sheriff faces is, precisely, this failing sense of causality — nothing in his life makes sense any more. In this way — and, I think, in only this way — is the sheriff the protagonist of the movie.

  10. r_sikoryak says:

    Speaking of memorable last-scene speeches, I just heard one last night, in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959):

    Holmes and Watson are eating breakfast, discussing the case.
    Holmes concludes, “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary. (pause) Muffin?”
    Watson: “Yes, thank you.”


    I don’t recall any muffin subtext in the rest of the movie.

    • Todd says:

      I think Holmes, in that speech, is trying out a new pet name for Watson in a rather ham-handed attempt to get closer to him emotionally. Watson, completely oblivious, thinks he’s talking about a literal muffin. Which is ironic, since Watson, in the novel, goes out of his way to mention that he hates the very sight of muffins. So when Holmes says, timidly, “Muffin?” Watson’s brain goes into homosexual panic — the only thing he hates more than muffins is Holmes’s clumsy attempts at cozy talk. Part of Watson wants to reply “yes, sugarplum?” (they are eating breakfast together, after all — obviously they’ve spent the night together) but that part must hang onto the last shred of heterosexuality that made it through his experiences in Africa.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Ice on Jerry’s car

    The meeting was short, but Wade and Stan probably kept Jerry waiting.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Rescue Rangers. There was a chief villain cat in The Rescue Rangers.