Fargo movie poster

Above and beyond all else, around and through all else, the Coen brothers have assembled here a timeless document on their native state, Minnesota. On its notorious winters. On its snow shovels and its ice scrapers (implement of an uproarious temper tantrum). On its parkas and mittens and gloves and galoshes (standard tidy row of them inside the front door). On its pancake houses and Swedish-smorgasbord cafeterias ("How's the fricassee?"). On its Paul Bunyan and his Babe, the Blue Ox. But mostly, and most hilariously, on its language. Its vernacular: "Oh, jeez" and "Okey-dokey" and the punctuation of sentences with a superfluous "here" or "now" or "there" or "then" at the end of them. Its place-names: Wayzata, Chaska, White Bear Lake, Moose Lake. Its people-names: Lundegaard, Gustafson, Gunderson ("So, ya married Norm Son-of-a-Gunderson!"). Its corporate names: Honeywell, Embers, Ecklund-Swedlund. And of course, encompassing and permeating all that, its regional accent: a clipped, choppy bastardization of the Scandinavian (or for the jocular, the Scandihoovian). Even a Japanese-American resident comes off sounding like the spawn of John Ford's stock Swede, John Qualen, and sure enough, like an echo out of Monument Valley, somebody actually says "Yer darn tootin'!" Is this portrait not, however, perhaps just a little bit narrow? (Surely everyone in Minnesota can't talk like that!) Is it not, even, a little bit unkind? Well, the same questions could be asked of, let's say, Ring Lardner or (Minnesota's own) Sinclair Lewis, two of the scrupulous chroniclers of American speech and manners with whom the Coens can justly and comfortably be grouped. And the more than just functional narrative — the allegedly "true story" of a Minneapolis car salesman who hires two mercenaries to kidnap his wife as a moneymaking scheme, ransom to be paid by his wealthy and thrifty father-in-law — is rich in thematic implications: the universal vices of the car dealer (a dealer by profession and by nature) set against the Minnesota virtues of a seven-months-pregnant small-town police chief: "There's more ta life than a little money, ya know. Doncha know that?" With William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Harve Presnell. 1996.

Duncan Shepherd

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