Fargo (1996)

Fargo (1996)


Disclaimer: I have not seen the TV series adapted from this film.

My take on Fargo has grown more critical over the years.

At the risk of autobiographical excess (it’s my blog and I’ll ___ if I want to), let me set the scene: 2005-2007, just out of high school, kitchen-handing, and cultivating a serious benzodiazepine addiction (both recreational, and as self-medication for anxiety).

My closest friend and I developed certain habits; taking sedatives of various kinds, driving aimlessly around under the influence, and watching films in his lounge. Correction; one film. Fargo. Again and again and again, the way a five-year-old demands the same story-book every night.

The beautiful snowy vistas, considered pace, and comedy of errors sat very comfortably with our benzo-addled state. To this day we quote the film, particularly the line “Total fucking silence. Two can play at that game” during the sort of awkward moment where one person babbles while the other remains silent.

Many of my early impressions of the film have not changed. Roger Deakin’s cinematography is indeed gorgeous, with the sort of compositions that distinguish cinema as a form; painterly 16:9 frames, most notably exteriors where movement enters at its own leisurely pace.

The script and performances remain fitfully hilarious. The Coen brothers show unusual restraint, allowing the performers space to bring their script to life rather than drowning them in genre-kitsch excess.

Frances McDormand’s heavily pregnant cop is the obvious standout, an admirably unusual lead – how many films have a pregnant lead without being specifically about pregnancy? And as usual, the Coens round out the cast with excellent character actors; William H Macy’s economically anxious middle-class man who resorts to crime, Peter Stormare and Steve Buscemi’s almost Tarantino-esque small-talking crims, and a number of minor players who make a major impression. The dialogue sequences are well-observed, taking their microscopic time just as the macroscopic wide-shots do.

Yet my late-teenage narcosis left me with a relatively superficial impression of the film (two words; purdy and funny). It has taken years for the plot and themes to truly sink in, and I’m not sure they sit right with me.

Adding the well-crafted parts together, it’s a conventional crime drama with a conventional message: crime doesn’t pay.

The story of middle-class crime hints at the dark underbelly of suburbia. Yet despite the female lead and the hidden violence perpetrated by men, the script does not encourage a reading along the lines of Blue Velvet, in which suburbia’s evil underbelly is the aggressively patriarchal, sexually perverse control of women.

Fargo‘s warning is more Biblical; the love of money is the root of all evil. This warning is made overt by lead character McDonald’s monologue at the end: “And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.”

Despite the warning against greed, this is no attack on capitalism. The problem is that little people get ideas above their station. Although the criminal characters are believably human, the story draws a clear line between criminal and lawful behaviour, and woe betide those who overstep the line. The film’s mawkish veneration of the quaint, strongly-accented midwestern Americans takes on a different light in this context; ordinary (white) people are celebrated for accepting their lot, for not asking too much. The pregnant leading lady and her bird-painting husband are an aesthetically appealing, but politically dubious, ideal of ascetic suburban virtue.

Ultimately, the law asserts itself and the wrongdoers are punished, as happy an ending as this tragic tale will allow. And a surprisingly conservative resolution.

Perhaps this is all deceptively simple irony, but after years of scratching my head, I don’t see it. It’s a genre piece, but almost any film is a genre piece; the Coens don’t get automatic immunity for being genre-savvy.

An aesthetically beautiful but politically conservative film, proof that good politics and good aesthetics don’t always match.


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