And Here Ya Are, and It's a Beautiful Day
Oh yeah, this is the stuff right here. Fargo isn’t my favorite Coen Brothers movie (that won’t be covered until next year), but it’s their best movie. Packing three hours of plot and character study into just under an hour and forty minutes, not a single frame is wasted. Just watching everything unfold is a pleasure in and of itself, everything else, the setting, the flawed humanity of the characters, is the gravy on top.
The TV series of the same name exists tangentially within the same universe, though unconnected, save for one moment in the first season, to anything that happens in the movie. What they do have in common is characters who find themselves, often violently, out of their element. Usually it’s because they initially think they’re smarter than everyone else, always this misconception ends in death, either their own or someone else’s. In the film it’s sad sack car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) and petty criminal Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi), and never has the phrase “Lord grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man” been more applicable for a movie than it is here. Neither of them could find their asses with a map and a flashlight, yet both are convinced that they can pull off a fake kidnapping and split the ransom money, with no one else the wiser.
That sense of self-assurance is sweet, but, alas, far too short. Carl is partnered with the unnervingly taciturn Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), who, rather than try to talk or bribe his way out of an encounter with a state trooper, simply shoots him instead, along with two innocent bystanders. This is all done with cool efficiency, something the hot-tempered Carl doesn’t get, and is a little frightened by. That’s not to say that Carl is a good guy--in fact, he’s a complete scumbag, but a scumbag who’s never gotten himself caught up in a murder before. It’s fascinating to watch him as he recalculates the situation while trying to appear unruffled by it, figuring out that Gaear, who he had assumed was a big, dumb lug he could easily control, is on more even ground with him than he realized.
Jerry, on the other hand, has never been in control, not of this or any other situation. Even Carl, who ostensibly works for him, treats him with contempt. It’s never made clear exactly why Jerry needs so much money in a hurry, other than to pay off a loan, but what did he need the loan for in the first place? He doesn’t seem like the “spending it all on strippers” type of guy, so it’s more likely he put money he didn’t have into a failed business venture, like filling his garage with Amway products or investing in a time-share scam. Or it could be something simpler, like many years of trying to keep up the appearance of being a successful businessman (when really he works for his father-in-law, who clearly despises him) finally catching up with him.
Either way, it’s come to this, and somehow Jerry thinks hiring a couple of thugs to “pretend” to kidnap his wife (though it’s still very much a real kidnapping) is a foolproof plan to make money fast. One can imagine him getting such an absurd idea while watching an old cop show one night as he’s sweating over the state of his finances, not bothering to watch to the end of the episode, because otherwise he’d know that these schemes never work. It’s debatable whether Jerry can be classified as a villain, or merely a hapless boob who makes the mistake of stepping out of his own lane, to disastrous results. The scene in which he practices sounding distraught before calling his father-in-law to tell him about the kidnapping suggests that he’s not particularly upset about it, but is it because he doesn’t care about what happens to Jean, or because he doesn’t think anything will happen to her? Why would he have any reason to think these two fellas from over in North Dakota would hurt her? That wasn’t part of their agreement.
Any notion that Jerry has the upper hand in the situation disappears once his father-in-law, Wade (Harve Presnell) shows up. Their interactions with each other, even in something as serious as a kidnapping, suggest a long history of Jerry trying to speak up for himself, and Wade shutting him down with all the efficiency of someone swatting a pesky fly out of the air. The “fake” kidnapping wouldn’t have happened in the first place if Jerry had been able to successfully talk Wade into giving him money to invest in a real estate venture, but Wade would rather work with the (non-existent) developer directly and give Jerry a smaller, inconsequential “finder’s fee” instead. He ignores Jerry’s claim that the kidnappers will only work with him directly, insisting that he should deliver the ransom money, even though Wade has no idea who or what he’s dealing with. One could argue that Wade isn’t exactly a “good” guy either, as he’s willing to put his daughter’s life at risk for the opportunity to yet again emasculate his useless lump of a son-in-law.
Though there’s a fair amount of bloodshed near the end of Fargo, the film is at its most uncomfortable when Jerry stammers his way through one increasingly hostile conversation after another with both Wade and a loan company officer. Squirming like a bug under a magnifying glass and looking like he’s about to burst into tears, Jerry is about the most pitiful “villain” ever committed to film. He’s just so bad at this, at trying to be slick, at trying to con a loan officer, at trying to convince his father-in-law to just hand over $750,000 without question. This is a man who gives a fake name when he checks into a motel, and then almost immediately forgets it. He’d collapse if a butterfly landed on his shoulder.
And that’s even before he meets Marge Gunderson.
An absolute force of calm, positive competence, Marge (Frances McDormand) appears unruffled in the face of a triple homicide, although it very well could be her first time as Brainerd’s Chief of Police that she’s ever had to deal with such a situation. If anything, she and Gaear are two sides of the same coin, always in control, always knowing exactly where they are in a situation, never needing to get loud and pushy like Carl, or whiny and pleading like Jerry. Being a woman in a largely male dominated profession has taught Marge to play her cards close to her vest, and never let anyone know when they’ve gotten under her skin, certainly not a twerp like Jerry Lundegaard, who has the audacity to get snippy and arrogant with her.
It takes a lunch date with an old classmate, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park), to shake Marge’s confidence in herself. The recently widowed Mike pours his heart out to Marge, then proceeds to awkwardly hit on her, despite the fact that she’s both married and heavily pregnant. Marge is flustered by the event, but not nearly as much as when she learns later that Mike was lying to her. His wife isn’t dead; in fact, he was never married at all. Is Marge naive for believing Mike without question? Well, probably, certainly from a modern perspective. Social media has taught us that it’s not at all unusual for people to drop huge whoppers about themselves for nothing more than a little sympathy and attention. But in 1986, for a smalltown, salt of the Earth woman like Marge, it simply doesn’t occur to her that someone would lie about such a thing. Mike has no reason to lie to her.
But Jerry does.
In a way, Marge’s encounter with Mike is what turns the murder case around. She returns to Jerry’s office, wondering if perhaps he was lying too. Painted into one last corner, Jerry pushes back with all the wet noodle strength he can muster and flees, confirming Marge’s suspicion that he knows who has the car missing from his lot. Everything else just falls into place after that point. Marge tracks down the car, and arrives just in time to see Gaear running the last of Carl through a woodchipper.
As Marge drives Gaear back to Brainerd in her squad car, she’s not relieved, or proud that the case has been solved. She’s devastated. She’s devastated, and she doesn’t understand any of it. Even if she knew the whole story, about Jerry’s money problems, about hubris, she still wouldn’t understand. Because that’s what’s so hard to take about these kinds of things, the random cruelty, the scheming, the hurting other people to get what we want, there’s just no sense to any of it, which means maybe there’s no sense to life in general. Gaear sits in the back of the car, silent, as Marge laments the pointlessness of it all. He might have an answer for her, but he’s not much of a talker.
Jerry is captured in Bismarck, wailing like the pathetic scrap of humanity he is, and nobody who’s still alive knows about the almost million dollars hidden along the side of a desolate, snow-covered highway.
At home later in the evening, Marge doesn’t talk about what happened on the job that day. She doesn’t mention that a broke, idiot car salesman’s disastrous idea led to the deaths of seven people. She talks instead about the art contest her husband, the ever-reliable Norm, has won second prize in, and when she tells him that she’s proud of him, she means it. They lay in bed together, Marge’s belly swelling in front of them, representing the safe little bubble they’re in together, one that will soon be made just a tiny bit bigger. “Two more months,” Norm says. “Two more months,” Marge repeats, and it sounds a little like a mantra, to keep an ugly world at bay.