By Jed Mayer | Press Play March 28, 2013 at 8:35AM
When Fargo was released, I felt that my home state of Minnesota had finally been given its Oresteia, its Njal's Saga, its Double Indemnity. Over the ensuing years, however, the popular image created by the Coen Brothers' regional epic has been a questionable inheritance. Thanks to Fargo, most people seem to think Minnesotans speak in cute, folksy phrases like “you betcha,” “ya, sure,” and “heckyamean?” I’d like to say that this is totally untrue, but some Minnesotans actually do talk like that. Sometimes I talk like that. For instance, there’s this one phrase I picked up from one of my Mom’s friends. She used to pause, look directly at you, wink, and say “True story!” with the trademark Minnesotan long “o.” This could be roughly translated into Laconic Midwestern as “yup.” Now I say it. Sure, initially we used the phrase around the house as a kind of joke, a gentle mockery of my Mom’s friend, but at some indefinable point it became an actual, living part of my vocabulary.
The Coen Brothers do not so much write dialogue as dialects for their characters, rich vocabularies and idioms that wend through their films, giving solidity to even the most outlandish narratives. They create linguistic communities connected by language despite their often-violent conflicts. At times the very phraseology that marks them as belonging to the same tribe serves to maintain a chilly distance. The Minnesotan phrase “yah, real good,” for example, might convey warm approval, angry impatience, or curt dismissal, depending on the speaker. The characters in Fargo may speak the same language, but it shapes them in dramatically different ways.
At the center of the film are two portraits of domesticity, one warm and loving, the other bitter and resentful. When we first encounter these families there is little to distinguish them: they all seem to communicate in cheerful idioms suggesting all is hunky dory, you betcha. As the horrible crime instigated by the secretly resentful Jerry Lundegaard begins to unfold, however, we see the void at the heart of the chirpy Midwestern family. In the terms of Icelandic saga, we might say that the Lundegaards marry into the Gustafsons, and the tension between the tribal patriarchs smolders into conflict. Translated into 1980s Minnesotan: Jerry feels threatened by his father-in-law, Wade, and hopes to score big on a parking lot development. Once we have first experienced the repressed anguish of the Lundegaards, their story subtly taints the film’s later portrayal of domestic life. Marge and Norm Gunderson are expecting a child, and their shared life seems to consist mostly of trite conversations exchanged over large portions of food. Their Minnesotan phrases and accents make them appear silly, comical, like characters in a Garrison Keillor routine. But as they live their seemingly small, inconsequential lives, they breathe love and vitality into the very same language the Lundegaards use with so little meaning, such hidden meanness.
These very different families are brought together by a series of murders that unfold as a result of a peculiar crime instigated by Jerry Lundegaard that reads like a bad Midwestern joke: “D’ja hear the one about the guy that had his own wife kidnapped?” What drives him to this act remains something of a mystery. When Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) asks him why anyone would want to do such a thing, he smiles nervously and stutters, “Well, that's, that's, I'm not go inta, inta—see, I just need money.” As the hired kidnappers press him, he nervously responds, “See, these are . . . personal matters.” Like his two hapless goons, the audience learns little more of Jerry’s motives, as he turns away all unwanted scrutiny with a wooden smile and conversational clichés. In what remains William H. Macy’s greatest performance, he transforms the annoying patter of the used car salesman into an accomplice to murder.
The television serves as the visual and conceptual link between the criminal elements set into motion by Lundegaard and the redemptive powers of the Gundersons. After the kidnapping, Carl and his taciturn partner Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) take Jerry’s wife Jean to a cabin in the woods, where they eat TV dinners while trying to get a signal on a broken down set. The growing tension of the film, the recent acts of violence, are renewed by Carl as he slams his fists on the television in between anxious readjustment of the jerry-rigged antenna. The snowy screen fleetingly resolves itself into a ghostly picture with each bang, and the camera closes in on what Carl angrily refers to as “the fuckin’ shit-box.”
Suddenly the picture resolves into an episode of the PBS show Nature. The soporific voice of the narrator, in stark contrast to Showalter’s rage, intones: “The bark beetle carries the worm to its nest where it will feed its young for up to six months.” We then see Marge and Norm Gunderson in bed, bathed in the stark light of the television, Marge watching with a glazed look while Norm sleeps against her side, both lying amidst a spilled bag of Old Dutch Potato Chips. The narration continues: “In the spring, the larvae hatch and the cycle begins again.” Since Marge is visibly pregnant, the program seems to comment on her own young, soon to hatch. The Gunderson nest seems a placid place, a place of mindless gestation and hibernation. But when the phone call comes summoning Police Chief Marge Gunderson to investigate a double homicide, their home becomes a retreat, a sanctuary from the world of meaningless violence in which we have been immersed. It is a sanctuary from which Marge must emerge, restoring the world with love and order so that she can rear her child in peace.
The television figures prominently in another, very different, domestic scene shown earlier in the film. Jean Lundegaard sits in her bathrobe, knitting while she watches what is perhaps the most annoying piece of local television ever recorded, KSTP-TV’s Good Company. Begun in the 1980s, the daytime variety and chat show was hosted by smarmy husband and wife team Steve and Sharon Edelman, a pair whose barely suppressed egos and strained cheeriness embody everything that is most repulsive in the Minnesotan character. As Steve and his substitute co-host Katie Carlson describe how to make “Holidazzle Eggs” (don’t ask), Jean smiles, mesmerized by her imaginary friends. Through the sliding glass door behind the television we see their surrounding community by way of the backs of several identical four-bedrooms. The Lundegaards aren’t typical so much as interchangeable with their neighbors; that is, until the violence unleashed by Jerry appears, in the form of a shambling, balaclava-clad figure who wanders up to the glass door and peers in. His appearance is so incongruous with the bland coziness of the domestic scene that the film seems to pause and gape along with Jean before he swings back a crow bar and smashes through the window, chasing Jean through the house as she screams in terror.
Fargohas been justly celebrated for its use of bleak, snowy landscapes to mirror the cold inner worlds of its most malevolent characters, but it should be noted that snow has many shades. The outside world prior to Jean’s abduction is decidedly beige, the neutral tones of the housing development barely standing out from the dirty late-winter snow. It is a blandness from which violence emerges, aptly reflecting the Lundegaards’ domesticity. The film is filled with bleak spaces and blank faces, snow-covered rural roads and airport parking lots creating an appropriate backdrop to the glazed looks of blankly-smiling waitresses, dull-eyed truck-stop girls, and chatty used car salesman. It is a blankness that threatens to devour even the film’s heroic Marge Gunderson and her cozy domestic life.
In one of the strangest scenes in the Coens’ oeuvre, Marge arranges an apparently illicit meeting with an old high school friend, Mike Yanagita, who calls her in the middle of the night hoping to catch up. His eagerness over the phone clearly marks him as a stalker, yet Marge’s otherwise sound police instincts seem to fail her, or perhaps she simply chooses to ignore them. In arranging a meeting with this rather sad stand-in for the role of “old flame,” her motives are suddenly as vague and shadowy as Jerry Lundegaard’s. Their brief lunch date at The Radisson devolves quickly, as Mike’s chummy bluster grows increasingly flirtatious. When Marge checks his advances, he begins to tell the story of his wife’s death from leukemia, which at first arouses Marge’s pity, before his tearful desperation frightens her into calling a halt to the lunch. In a later phone conversation Marge discovers from a high school friend that Mike was never married, and she stares into space, having touched briefly one of the many blank spaces of the frozen world.
The film concludes with Marge and Norm Gunderson back in bed. In between this and the earlier scene watching television in bed, Marge has conquered the forces of evil and restored order to their cozy world: their bedroom now appears touchingly intimate, nurturing. But if the contrasting greed and violence displayed earlier now lends a quiet dignity to their humble existence, it also lingers as a barely repressed threat. We have seen the violence that can emerge from blankness, and as their faces settle into a slightly glazed placidity, we can almost hear the wind howling outside. True story.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.