Why don’t people talk about Fargo more? For starters, a filmography as diverse as that of Joel and Ethan Coen sometimes presents the dilemma of hipness. There’s an unspoken pressure not to name their most popular films as your favorites. The perception of popularity as base and vulgar tends to taint critical consensus, leading films that were once considered someone’s best work to be ignored in favor of something under-seen. Then there’s the added layer of obviousness; people don’t talk about these movies because, well, why bother? Everyone already knows they’re great, right? This all has the weird side-effect of making a film like Fargo – a hit at the box office, beloved of critics, and nominated for seven Oscars – seem under-appreciated. I don’t know if I can say that Fargo is the best Coen Brothers film, but it’s always been my favorite.
While it wasn’t their first film, Fargo’s breakout success made it something of a calling card for the Coens. Its status as a panacea for their work became more clear with each of their eleven subsequent films. It’s all there: the uncomplicated and unmerciful morality of the universe, the Biblical temptations, the dark and culturally-specific humor, the stirring Carter Burwell score, and Roger Deakins’ beautifully stark cinematography. This is the ur-Coens picture, the one where everything we understand about them fell into place for the first time. Understanding Fargo helps us to gain a greater understanding of all of their films.
Let’s start with morality and human folly. People sometimes misconstrue the way in which the Coens view the human experience. Films like A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis are quite harsh on their protagonists, comically in the former and tragically in the latter. It’s easy to see these films as ruled by an Old Testament-style deity, dishing out endless punishment onto his subjects. Many of their films deliver seemingly unfair consequences to their main characters. Despite this, the Coens have never had a pessimistic view of the world. Their films exist in universes with very black-and-white moral codes, and their characters are often found trying and failing to play by their own rules.
Fargo is the clearest example of this. It’s the closest that the Coens have come to writing “good guys” and “bad guys.” Even then, Fargo doesn’t define its characters in those terms. There are only people who do good things, and people who do bad things. The universe won’t reward those who do good, but it will inevitably punish those who do bad. In such a world, it’s understandable why Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) would do the things that he does. Doing the right thing and staying inside the lines hasn’t gotten him anywhere. He’s not a bad person. He feels like the universe owes him something, and the film starts with him at the point where he finally decides to pursue it for himself.
The pursuit of self-interest at the expense of others is never tolerated in a Coen Brothers film. In Inside Llewyn Davis, that pursuit is translated as one of artistic integrity, a pursuit which you might imagine that the Coens, artists themselves, would sympathize with. But even there, the Coens can’t let Llewyn win. In their films, you just can’t impose your own set of rules onto the universe. In their most recent film, Hail, Caesar!, the underlying politics of this theme become literal, but for a while they treated it as merely a fact of life.
There’s also something to be said for Fargo as a cautionary tale about pushing boundaries. After all, most of the film doesn’t even take place in the titular town, but it looms over everything. It’s where Jerrry has to drive to meet up with the kidnappers, and it’s a long drive at that. He has to want to go there. He has to mean it. Fargo becomes a monument to Jerry’s hubris. He reaches outside his prescribed role by leaving his small hometown, and it backfires spectacularly. An unfair characterization of this aspect of Fargo and their other work paints the Coens as cynical advocates for submission to oppressive systems.
The reason other side of this moral coin sometimes confounds people is that it doesn’t go both ways. Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) does everything right. She relentlessly pursues justice, she has a strong moral code, and she is never tempted to sin. The fact that the universe doesn’t reward her in the end leads to the misinterpretation of the film’s morality as one-sided. Goodness is its own reward in Fargo. In the end, Marge gets to be Marge. Unlike so many Coens protagonists, she is capable of recognizing what a blessing that is.
It’s always frustrating to see people misread Marge as naive when she’s the least naive character in the film. Her final speech to Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) in the car (“I just don’t understand it.”) isn’t an admission that crime is too much for her to comprehend. She gets why people do bad things. “And it’s a beautiful day,” she says, shaking her head, even though the skies are as grey as they were in the first frame. And yet you can tell that she means it. She really does think that the world is beautiful, even in its ugliness. Marge’s understanding of the world transcends that of everyone around her. She sees the deeper truth of the universe, and she lives by it. That truth is, to quote the Coens’ most recent film, “written not in words, but in light.”