Think of the worst mistake you have made in your life. Now, imagine, that mistake results in you being sent away to prison for murder. Unless you are reading this from a jail cell then you can’t and don’t want to relate. The movie eschews a form of cognitive dissonance that ensures what we see and what we believe, or are led to believe, do not match.
On what is the 20th anniversary of the movie Fargo, it is interesting to go back and take a look at just how funny, anxiety-inducing, weird and against the grain it was. It’s hard to isolate Fargo from the work the Coen Brothers have made in the 20 years since it’s release. Back in 1996, we didn’t know how prolific and profound their work would become in the entailing two decades. It would result in their first academy award win (2) along with seven nominations. They would go on to make another 16 feature length films, which were just as weird and wonderful as Fargo, in the next two decades that changed the way we viewed what appeared to be simple movies on their surface.
I assume you wouldn’t be reading this if you hadn’t seen the movie and after 20 years, the statute of limitations on a spoiler alert has long since passed, so we can go ahead and work off the knowledge that you know what happens to Jerry, Marge, Shep and the gang! Generally when you think of throwing away the rule book, you think of an unorganized, flimsy game, or movie in this case, with no substance. The Coen Brothers threw the rule book out the window, sure, but they made up their own set of fantastic rules that inspired anxiety and questions that few have ever been able to replicate, or for that matter, have wanted to replicate.
It starts with a faux true story that flummoxed movie watchers upon their first viewing. They said they changed the names “out of respect for the dead” but everything else was told exactly as it happened. This is where the anxiety begins. It gives the move an extra edge that other, fictional movies don’t have. It gives them the right to tell you anything, and it makes you gullible. It leaves you at the behest of the movie and not the other way around.
It was an aberrant movie for it’s time based on the fact that the protagonist is a pregnant female cop with seemingly no inherent ability to catch a cold-blooded killer than I do sitting here at my computer. One review of the Coen Brothers has described their heroes as “hapless, well-meaning schlemiels upon whom life exacts a toll that’s much worse than they deserve.” At first, Marge appears an incompetent, suburban cop who has never dealt with the kind of people she is now chasing. It’s another case of the Coen Brothers playing with your eyes – and your mind. “From his footsteps, he appears to be a big fella’” she says as she so astoundingly remarks on the murder scene of the first true crime. What an astute observation from someone we believe to be incompetent. Even Marge’s style of interrogation of Shep Proudfoot is that of a concerned parent trying to coax the truth from her, quite obviously, lying child. The cognitive dissonance upon watching the movie is rife in almost every scene.
In a New York Times review written back on the year of it’s release, it was said that the name of the movie gives you a clue as to what it is about. It’s not about geography per se but about going too far, breaking limits because the movie is set in Minnesota, many miles from Fargo. Aside from the Coen Brothers breaking down the barriers of who should be the hero and the kind of heroes we accept and cheer for, you could also argue that they changed the way movie watchers viewed movies. Nothing is ever what it seems in a Coen Brothers script. It made you think that little bit more, it made you work through the double entendres and left you with a sense of gratification when you realised what you had watched after it had ruminated in your head for a while. It became an extremely gratifying task to watch a Coen Brothers movie when you found yourself smrking at the screen upon “getting” one of their gags.
The Coen Brothers use their privilege as trusted filmmakers to persuade us into a certain way of thinking before hitting us with Steve Buschemi getting shoved through a wood chipper. “A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere” is what they say and that’s the movies byline. A lot does happen, and a lot more happens upon second and third viewings because the Coen Brothers aren’t interested in making popular movies. They’re interested in making master pieces that continue to play with your mind when you watch them after 20 years.
The other problem you are faced with and forced to wrestle with is that Jerry Lundegaard is you. Jerry Lundegaard is me. He is your every man and the way he talks is the way the movie pans out. Take, for example, his conversations with his wife’s father. He is forced to change direction and enter areas of his mind he does not wish to venture into, much like the conversations he has with the two men who become his wife’s killers. It’s up to you whether you want to believe that Lundegaard was pushed to the edge by his indifferent father-in-law or that he was always a cruel and apathetic man who couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery.
The scene when he knows the game is up, trapped in a bathroom with a tiny window is the exact point of the climax of the anxiety. Trapped in a room that appears to be getting smaller, grasping for the light as it slowly disappears. The apex of a terrible plan, an anxiety-inducing storyline and one that you still believe is true.
The language of the movie. So banal, and simple and normal, yet hilarious. When describing Buschemi’s character, a local says, “He’s a little guy, kinda funny looking.” and when pushed on what he means by ‘funny looking’, he says “Oh just in a general kind of way.”
Marge, having just solved a case that involved several murders, lies in bed with her husband and the big news is that he made the 3-cent stamp while being upset that Hautman’s Blue-winged Teal painting was selected for the 29-cent. The real news wasn’t all the blood draped across the snow, it was the duck and the photo of the duck – you also have to remember that we are digesting this as though it was real. You’re expecting an analysis of the situation by Marge and her husband but what the Coens give us is the most facile component of their lives.
The Coen Brothers made this movie as their third and taught us not to trust anyone or anything you see before your eyes especially when their names are on the credits. It was a lesson learned and referenced back to several times over the course of the last twenty years as they attempted to, and succeeded, in tricking us with their double entendres, dark humor and effortless twists. I won’t go on anymore, out of respect for the victims, of course.
By Robbie Dunne. Follow Robbie on Twitter