Friday, 23 January 2009

‘The Macabre and the Monotonous': Joel & Ethan Coen’s Fargo revisited

You know those moments in life when tragedy has a cruel humour to it? Don’t you find it hard to stop your lips curling into a smile at such times – even though it’s awful and you know you shouldn’t? Nobody would want their life reduced to a cruel joke, but it happens.

Released in 1996, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo explores this comedy of cruelty. The film deals with a horrific series of events surrounding Jerry Lundegard’s (William H. Macy) hair-brained scheme to have his wife kidnapped and acquire the ransom money. Almost immediately, and in true Coen style, this scheme spirals out of control. We know it will from the start and can predict the inevitable and violent catastrophe from the moment we first meet the protagonists. The kidnappers for hire (Steve Buschemi and Peter Stormare) seem blasé and distracted, with little regard for the lives of others and Jerry is an idiot for trusting these men. Jerry himself is a walking disaster who’s spiraling coil of lies lays the foundations of his ultimate downfall.

The sea of calm throughout Fargo is Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), a heavily pregnant local sheriff who becomes involved when the two kidnappers end up shooting a local lawman. Amid all the bleak horrors of the film Marge remains at ease and unaffected, able to treat the murder case with the same degree of level-headedness and reassurance that she applies to her husband’s worries over the local stamp art competition. Without Marge the film’s nasty events would become overblown, but the intermittant snapshots of domestic life with husband Norm, and their encapsulation of an idealised American existence gives the film its wry edge and provides a safe haven and anchor to the madness that swirls elsewhere in the story.

As terrible events unfold with appalling inevitability and the body count of innocents rises, the Coen brothers continually make evident the desperately funny side of things. As in life, dramatic incidents take place alongside the mundane and everyday. This contrast has been illustrated in films before, though none have portrayed the ridiculous absurdities of the world we live in as brilliantly and brutally as Fargo.

For example the scene in which Jerry’s wife, Jeannie (Kristin Rudrüd), is kidnapped develops into bizarre and disturbing slapstick. Trying to escape her kidnappers, she runs about with a shower curtain wrapped around her like a headless chicken, and, terrible though her fate is, we cannot help but find the scene darkly amusing. This is echoed later when, taken from a car, she again tries to escape. Her hands are tied, she is hooded and has no idea where she is, yet still she runs about frantically in the snow before collapsing in an exhausted heap. Put in a situation so far removed from anything she has experienced, Jeannie cannot cope. This illustrates the main conceit of the film: the juxtaposition of Jeannie’s apple pie and white picket fence existence with that of the ruthless and violent social underbelly the kidnappers inhabit.

Through this juxtaposition Jerry is consistently mocked by the Coen’s; at one point, after a meeting with Jeanie’s father about the situation, which leaves Jerry bleak and desperate, a waitress, wearing her sweetest, fake smile, asks, ‘And how is everything today?’ Which, of course, only serves to sharpen the appalling nature of Jerry’s predicament.
Instances like this create an often-hilarious counterpoint to the more action based narrative of the film. The audience is shown Jerry’s agreeable ‘home grown’ persona in the company photo that hangs on his office wall; he is strong, confident, ‘going places’. This impression, however, is immediately subverted by the reality, which, of course, is just the opposite; he is a nervous, inept dunderhead who’s self-esteem is rapidly crumbling beneath a fragile façade. (best observed through the relationship with his wife’s successful father Wade (Harve Presnell) – whom he clearly both hates yet seeks approval from and who continually undermines and humiliates him.)

An image we return to throughout the film is the imposing shot of the slightly ridiculous Paul Bunyan statue (shown soon after Jeannie has been kidnapped) which again is a comical play on the seriousness of all that is happening – austere and unmoved as the cruel ironies of life unfold around it. Life goes on – awful things happen; violence, death, betrayal, corruption – but ultimately the world is indifferent. Set against the bleak, harsh backdrop of a frosty North American landscape, Perhaps Fargo is essentially a film about survival – each character simply trying to stay afloat as life and circumstances slowly drags them down.

Fargo’s most revealing moment lies in the scene where Marge goes to lunch with an old classmate, Mike (Steve Park). The scene is apparently extraneous to the main narrative yet the Coens place it right in the centre of the film. Why? Because this scene is the key.

Mike is a rather pathetic character, who relates to Marge how his wife has died and life has seemingly taken a downturn. We soon discover, however, that Mike’s story is a lie; he has never had a wife, and as he crumbles and begins to cry, he reveals a life of lonely desperation. The truth is, that he loves Marge – ‘such a superlady’ – and perhaps has done, ever since they were classmates. Marge, who copes with unruffled aplomb to all the horrors encountered in her job, is dumbfounded, and can’t quite cope with this situation; a cry for help from a fellow human being. The scene is simultaneously tragic, awkward and hilarious - the essence of the film in a nutshell: Shit happens, life is brutal and harsh, but ultimately we are all on our own.

In a world where people increasingly want life to be like ‘in the movies,’ it’s refreshing to see a film taking life’s more ambiguous and tragic events and putting them front and centre.

Jack Wormell

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