It’s silly of me, I know. It has got nothing to do with what’s on the screen. But one of my earliest reactions to Fargo — my feeling about it before I even saw it — was relief that the Coen brothers had scaled back their level of production from the dizzying and nose-bloodying heights of The Hud-sucker Proxy and Barton Fink. I was freed to watch it without any gnawing worries about their getting blackballed by a hornswoggled and finally fed-up Hollywood. Money has never had much to do with the unique quality of their work, anyhow.
There’s one other point that demands forthwith to be gotten out of the way or into the open. Fargo, outside of the opening scene in the titular North Dakota city, takes place in Minnesota. Joel and Ethan Coen were born and raised in Minnesota. I, too, was born and raised there. So the Minnesota connection may need to be taken into account should I say something rash and lavish and un-Minnesotan such as, for example, that this is a movie I have been waiting my entire life for, or that I have been walking on clouds ever since I saw it; or that I cannot remember when I have laughed so much and so hard at a movie (maybe Modern Romance, 1981); or that it is the first movie I have seen in just short of a decade (dating back to Alain Resnais’s Life Is a Bed of Roses, actually a 1983 movie) that I might seriously have to consider numbering among my all-time favorites. But let me sit with that awhile; sit through it another time or two; see how I feel about it then.
Above and beyond all else, around and through all else, Fargo is a document on our former Northern Star (before it got topped by Alaska), and not because the “true story” on which it is based is any sort of defining moment, like the Battle of the Alamo for Texas, the Land Rush for Oklahoma, the Simpson Case for California. A printed preface informs us that the names of the characters, like those each week on the old Dragnet, have been protectively changed. But: “Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” This, though you would never know it from the bleak snowscape on screen or the mournful Celtic fiddle on the soundtrack, is a joke. If a Minneapolis car salesman had hired a couple of mercenaries to kidnap his wife in 1987 as a moneymaking scheme (ransom to be paid by his wealthy and thrifty father-in-law), and seven people had been killed in the result, I feel certain that my Minneapolitan mother would have some recollection of it.
No. Quite irrespective of the accuracy of the “facts,” Fargo is a document on the state’s 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: Lun-degaard, Gustafson, Gunderson (“So, ya married Norm Son-of-a-Gunder-son!”). Its corporate names: Honeywell, Embers (the twenty-four-hour coffee shops of my night-owl salad days), Ecklund-Swedlund (sponsor of my Little League team: horrible green caps and trim). And of course, encompassing and permeating all that, its regional accent: a clipped, choppy bastardization of the Scandinavian (or for the jocular, the Scandihoovian). Marisa Tomei made a respectable stab at that accent in Untamed Heart, though it went all but unnoticed — drowned out, in all likelihood, by Rosie Perez’s imported Puerto Rican via Brooklyn. No one, rest assured, who sees Fargo will fail to notice the accent. 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’!”
What a lot of fun the actors must have had — chief among them William H. Macy, as the car salesman and stunningly stupid criminal mastermind, and Frances McDormand (Joel Coen’s wife) as the seven-months-pregnant police chief of backwater Brainerd — learning and mimicking this overlooked accent. And what a lot of fun the Coens must have had writing lines for it. Much of the fun, for the viewer, comes from the discrepancies between what is being talked about and how it is being talked about, between the urgency of the events and the reserve of the people, between people’s commonality the world over and their peculiarity in Minnesota. The pregnant policewoman is awakened in the wee hours by an emergency phone call (“O-key, there in a jiff”), dallies long enough to polish off a healthy breakfast-for-two, trudges back into the house a long moment after her departure (“Hon, prowler needs a jump”), and finally sizes up the bizarre crime scene of two dead civilians and one dead patrolman miles apart: “I’d be very surprised if our suspect was from Brainerd.”
Among the many verbal delights still fresh in mind: the truest car-selling scene in screen history (the salesman hiking up the price with unwanted “Tru-Coat Paint Sealant” and then pretending to appease the infuriated customer by knocking off $ 100 from the extra charge); the consistency with which witnesses describe one of the kidnapper-killers as “funny-looking” (Steve Buscemi, that would naturally be), without being able, or feeling it at all necessary, to particularize; the police chiefs interview of two truck-stop chippies in which the word “Yah” is passed back and forth between the participants like a theme in a Haydn piano trio. And if there. and elsewhere, I might be inclined to characterize the Coens’ dialogue as musical, it would not be in the sense of melodious or lilting or lovely-to-listen-to, but rather in the sense of rhythmical, repetitive, rigorously organized, formful, harmonious.
Is it 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 us say. Ring Lardner or (Minnesota’s own) Sinclair Lewis, two of the scrupulous chroniclers of American speech with whom the Coens can justly and comfortably be grouped. (And yes, I know full well what I am doing there, or intending to do: putting them with one of the titans of 20th-century American literature, Lardner, and a mere good-sized figure, Lewis.) We are a long way here, to throw in a useful point of reference, from the warm fuzzy folksy avuncularities of Garrison Keillor in mythical Lake Wobegon. The Coens risk narrowness in order to home in on, isolate, highlight, a particular truth. And they deliver low blows in exchange for high humor.
Then again, there is much more to the Coens than chilliness and nippiness. There is much more, for one thing, to Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson than just a funny accent. Look at the way she ever so gently and apologetically corrects an underling on the validity of his Sherlock Holmesian deduction (the “DLR” in the slain patrolman’s logbook would not be the first three letters of the perp’s license plate, but rather would be code for “dealer” plates); and the way she deflects an unwelcome sexual advance with utmost concern for the potential embarrassment of the man and for maintaining the illusion that nothing unseemly has just occurred; and the way she shifts gears in conversation with an uncooperative witness and reminds him of her official status (“Ya have no call ta get snippy with me here”); and the way, after bringing the case to a difficult conclusion, she wastes no time basking in her own success but ministers instead to the ego of her recently neglected husband; and the way she puts the whole thing succinctly in perspective for the collared criminal: “There’s more ta life than a little money, ya know. Doncha know that?” And then, wistfully: “It’s a beautiful day” (in reference to a shades-of-white panorama in which sky is hard to’tell from ground). More than merely one of the most endearing screen heroines in years, she edges close to eligibility for sainthood. A suitably Minnesota saint, to be sure. A saint of modesty, decency, decorum, quiet competence, stoical perseverance. Saint Marge of Brainerd.
Very much on the opposite hand, William Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard is a universal true-crime dunderhead, Minnesotan by happenstance. Every Coen brothers movie, once you start noticing, is centered around a unifying motif. The Hudsucker Proxy had The Circle. Barton Fink had The Head. Fargo has The Deal. And Jerry Lundegaard is the quintessential “dealer” by profession and by nature.
It is fascinating to follow the modifications of that concept. The deal, the big deal, the major deal, is struck in the opening scene at a state-line tavern aptly named the King of Clubs (as in, deal me in), and away we go from there: “Good deal” ... “Sweetheart deal”... “This is my deal here”... “Let’s just finish this deal up, here”... “This was supposed to be a no-rough-stuff type deal here” ... “A deal’s a deal” ...
“They only deal with me.” I’m sure that additional viewings will reveal additional deals. And just as I thought I could detect in the Hula-Hoop hoopla in The Hudsucker Proxy a covert continuation of the open commentary on Hollywood in Barton Fink, I think I can now detect the same in Fargo — the “deal” being the keystone of what is laughingly known as the creative process in present-day Hollywood (buttressed on one side by the “pitch” and on the other by the “campaign”). But there’s more to making movies than making money, doncha know that? And in a world chockablock with dealers—deal-makers, wheeler-dealers, dirty dealers, dope dealers, car dealers — the Coens are the genuine and lonely artists.
And at this point, on top of what has been said already about their ear for dialogue, a word or few should be added about their eye. Or, since only one of them assumes credit as director, Joel’s eye. He knows how to fill the screen to maximum capacity with a Great Shot: the flat-against-the-screen bulletin board of sales-staff portraits at the car dealership (reminiscent, vaguely, of the jobs board in Hudsucker) or the dramatic overhead view of a solitary car angled into the pattern of potted trees on a freshly snowed-over parking lot. But he knows better than to do that sort of thing more than a couple of times per movie. He understands that the individual shot is far less important than its placement and function in a sequence, and that the sequence of shots is what makes a movie move. What makes it, more basically, a movie. With the possible exception of the bigger-budgeted Miller's Crossing (Byzantine in plot only), Fargo is the Coens’ least fancy, most fluid, most placid movie. And most Minnesotan, if I may, in more ways than the setting.
The economical fun-with-hook-ers episode is a model of the comic blackout: one passive shot of bouncing, heavy-breathing action in a two-bed motel room followed, after a fast fade, by a frozen group-portrait of the foursome in silent attention to the opening of The Tonight Show, followed by another fade. And the kidnappers’ break-in to the Lundegaard domicile illustrates to perfection the concept of comic building: crosscutting between the head-to-toe black figure who appears at the sliding-glass door carrying a crowbar, peering under cupped hands into the interior, and the slow-reacting housewife, at first just puzzled, then mildly alarmed (what could a strange man be doing on the back porch?), who has been interrupted at her knitting and her TV talk show. The comic topper comes with the first shot that includes the two of them together in the same frame, and we can see that the distance dividing them is a bare four feet.
The following frenzy demonstrates a mastery of straight-faced thriller devices as well. The telephone flying out of the woman’s hands inside a locked bathroom is almost supernatural in effect, yet perfectly logical and obvious upon a second’s reflection. And the woman’s daring escape stratagem is foiled only because one of the kidnappers, slightly nicked in the tussle, lingers behind to search the medicine cabinet for “unguent.” (We always get to hear words in a Coen brothers script that we hear nowhere else: unguent, fricassee, sealant.) Later, and against all probability, we are shown something brand-new in car chases: a high-speed pursuit, on an unlit icy country road, of distant and suddenly disappearing tailiights (where’d they go?), a minimalist composition in red-on-black.
At a cursory glance, or better yet, at a blurring squint, it might seem appropriate and expedient to lump the Coens in with the likes of Tarantino, Rodriguez, Dahl, et al. The hip. The cool. The modernist. The postmodernist. The movie-mad. Whatever breadth of umbrella is required. The trick for the viewer — the solemn task for the critic — is to discern and to measure the differences. Not too difficult a trick or task, really. In their thematic focus and unity, in their multiple levels of achievement and layers of meaning, in their profundity of sentiment beneath the irony, in their exercise of taste and restraint in areas of barbarity, in their solidness and seamlessness of construction, their freshness of invention, their vividness of imagination, their thoroughgoing creation of a total world from the ground up, the Coens transcend any trendy categorization and venture near the realm of — if it isn’t too soon to be saying so — the timeless, the ageless, the classic. There is no one else like them in American cinema. There is no one else who could have made Fargo.