The brothers Coen were born in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota, not far from the locale they chose to depict in Fargo, a film celebrated by many as the best of 1996. Fargo is part film-noir (film-blanc?), part black comedy, all Coen, and all brilliant.
Set in a very particular region of the American midwest – Fargo, North Dakota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the bleak flatlands in between, a land of Hardee’s, ice-fishing, all-you-can-eat buffets, Minnewegian accents, a marked aversion to the F-word, and lots (and lots) of snow – Fargo tells the story of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), the put upon son-in-law of local tycoon Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell).
Lundegaard badly needs money to (1) cover up a fraud he’s perpetrated at the car dealership where he works in his father-in-law’s employ and (2) possibly finance a business deal he hopes will win him and his little family some financial independence. So Jerry makes a trade with two semi-professional criminals. He gives them a brand new Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera (burnt umbra, presumably outfitted with TruCoat) and a promise of $40,000, and they will in turn kidnap Jerry’s wife, Jean, so that he can hit up his father-in-law for the ransom (plus another $960,000 he has no intention of telling his business partners about).
Naturally, things don’t go quite as planned – “Circumstances have changed, Jerry. Acts of God. Force majeure.” – and the unexpected collateral deaths of three innocents from Brainerd pull Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) into the fray. Marge, the police chief in Brainard, “Home of Paul Bunyan,” is an effective mix of detective smart, placid forceful, and Minnesota nice. And she’s very pregnant. She is also one of Hollywood’s great heroines.
True to form for Joel and Ethan Coen, just about everything in this movie is outstanding – the characters, the acting, the score (Carter Burwell), the cinematography (Roger Deakins), and especially the screenplay. Because the story itself is fairly straightforward, the real brilliance of the script lies in what’s put in and what’s left out.
Just a few for-instances.
In one scene Jerry, after coming home – a bag of groceries in each arm – to find that the plan is in motion and his wife has been kidnapped, prepares to call his father-in-law, Wade. We’ve just seen the upstairs bathroom where, a few hours before, Jerry’s wife had run to barricade herself from her kidnappers. The floor is now littered with the contents of the medicine cabinet (“Unguent.”), a bent window screen, and a crowbar. The window is still open, and two pieces of torn plastic still hang from the rings that held the shower curtain, which in the next shot we see in a crumpled wad at the bottom of the stairs, just a few feet from a pile of broken glass beneath the open window frame and next to the TV, still on, only static. We hear Jerry's voice over these images – the camera, in both shots, slowly panning up from the floor and away toward the middle distance. He is apparently distraught, apparently speaking to Wade. But then the camera cuts to the kitchen and we realize that Jerry is talking to himself, rehearsing the conversation he is about to have. We are several feet away, perhaps where the shower curtain still lies on the floor; we’re eavesdropping. The staircase dominates the right hand side of the frame, boxing Jerry in and reminding us of his wife, who in her panic to escape had tumbled down those stairs.
Another, lesser, screenplay might have also given us the conversation between Jerry and Wade, but this one does not; that conversation is a foregone conclusion, unimportant. Instead we listen to Jerry rehearse, trying a few different scripts, each with its own level of hysteria. Then he abruptly picks up the phone and dials, determined. He’s momentarily flummoxed to hear (most likely) Wade’s secretary on the other end. Then he says, too composed, a different man than the character he was playing a moment before, “Wade Gustafson, please.” End scene.
Later in the film Jerry will arrive at the drop-off, where Wade has gone to deliver the ransom, having thrown his weight around and forced Jerry out of the deal. Wade and Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi, “the loudmouth”) have had a shootout. Wade’s dead body lies in the snow on the top floor of a parking garage downtown. Minneapolis, in steel blue, surrounds the scene. We see Wade in the foreground, his car (headlights still on) facing the camera on the left side of the frame, as Jerry’s car pulls up beside it, also facing the camera. We can’t see Jerry’s face, but his reaction is suggested in the way the car slowly glides forward and then stops. We cut to a shot from behind Jerry’s car, red brake light on the passenger side in frame, exhaust billowing up in the cold air, and Wade’s body lit up by the headlights. A long pause. Then the trunk of the car pops open, suggestively.
Again: End scene. It’s enough.
The very next shot shows Jerry’s view from the driver’s seat as he pulls up to the exit of the parking garage. Moments before Jerry arrived on the roof, he’d passed Carl on his way out of the garage. Carl, bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound on his face, pulls up to the parking lot attendant, who is understandably shocked to see the state Carl’s in. Carl demands that he open the gate...And we cut to Jerry’s arrival on the roof.
Some moments later – after Jerry’s arrival and the black, empty abyss of the trunk – we’re back at the exit to the parking garage. The yellow and black striped arm of the gate lies in pieces on the ground as Jerry’s car slowly pulls forward. There’s a reverse shot of Jerry’s face. He passes the booth and looks to his left – we see a foot sticking up through the window, then a leg, then the rest of the attendant, on his back, blood splattered on the wall. Cut back to Jerry’s face: “Oh, jeez.”
We never see Carl shoot the attendant. Instead, minutes later, we see Jerry seeing the aftermath. In the same way, we never see Jerry loading Wade’s body into the trunk of the car, or Carl, and his tightlipped partner Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), chase down and subdue Jean after her pitiful attempt to escape into the woods. This screenplay is distinguished by its restraint. Actually, aside from a little brain splattering and that infamous scene with the wood chipper, in Fargo the Coens’ treatment of violence and gore is remarkably restrained. The threat (really, the promise) of violence is often more terrifying than the violence itself – if we see the ax swing or the gun go off, we can be sure that they’ll find their targets. We don’t have to see it for ourselves.
In another thousand words I could say a few things about Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox (and a dead man in the snow, in red and blue, a few yards away from his belly up and boxy blue Ford Fiesta), and about unthinkable violence in small town America, and about vertical blinds like the bars of a jail cell, the camera closing in, and about black titles on white, and about white, white, white everywhere, so that the ground and the sky never meet on the horizon and cars disappear into that undefined space in between, and about the ones that take life and the one that will give it, in “two more months, two more months.”