I meant to review this a while ago, but the year of its twentieth anniversary seems as good a time as any. Noah Hawley’s television show is every bit the film’s equal, but there’s nothing wrong with the primordial ooze of the original.
Defying expectations amidst the deluge of knowingly hip independent thrillers dotting the late ‘90s landscape like murder victims on the path of the criminal spree of ironic, self-referential cool, Fargo is at heart a tone poem, a restful calm rather than a flurry of moments convinced of their knuckle-dusting cool and charisma. Twisting and turning would be a death knell for a wonderful mood piece like this, and more often than not, a tacit admittance of an under-confident film that filmmakers’ gild and plaster over with knee-jerk side-winds to appease audiences. Fargo, which is devious and cage-rattling because it is a recess from this sort of narrative glut, is a film of blinding deception but never one that throttles its characters through the thrombosis of a belabored story.
Often accused of flattening their characters from above with their caustic cynicism, the Coen Brothers – in the film that “made” them – are too obsessed with feeling out their characters to ever truly hate them, or even exhibit a singular, untroubled, complete feeling toward them at all. Instead, Fargo’s emotions deal in dialectics of all varieties, from the contradictions of the human condition to the tensions in the writer-director team’s own situation as expat-Minnesotans relative to the thickly-brewing Mid-Northern culture they depict in this film. Rather than impressing itself above its characters with singular determination, Fargo is uniquely sincere in its desire to engage with the chemical allure of the mystifying and multilayered dialectics that construct both the individual human soul and the milieu of a place.
Perched between independent and mainstream, small-town and big-city, this Minnesotan little ditty is an arbiter of the numerous contrasts and not-so-democratic differences that inscribe themselves within and form the girders of the American character. An arbiter, I say, but the philosophical debate in this film is so home-cooked and deeply embedded in the texture of the mise-en-scene and the feel of the characters that it hardly feels like philosophy at all. More like a campfire story, an American myth about the eccentricities and self-justifying monologues and confabulations that define the peculiar character of the out-of-the-way American spaces. As a snow-covered limbo, North Dakota and Minnesota don’t immediately register memories of the American West, but once you peek beyond the surfaces – if you trade in the color of the unforgiving lateral expanse for a dustier tone – Fargo begins to take on the essence of the imaginative frontier in the American tradition, emphasis on the imaginative.
A Weird West tall tale, the morbid glee of the film’s mood explores the contours and eccentricities of the forgotten spaces in the American canon, from the frigid near-mythical limbo of the fjord-like Minnesotan exterior to the hidden nooks and crannies embedded deep within the equally pale, frosty visages of niceness and camaraderie that the deeply Lutheran Midwesterners flaunt for others and themselves alike. It’s a deeply layered tale then, but it unfolds with the spirited, confrontational demeanor of a dialectic. Each new “self” – from new revelations, to new characters, to new depths each human will plunge to for self-satisfaction – doesn’t so much reveal itself from the ashes of the old (as it would in most films, where one truth would give way to a new truth which usurps its predecessor and still clarifies our need for one static, singular, holistic truth with a pacifying wholeness at any one time). Instead, Fargo’s shifts don’t displace one another; comedy and horror can exist in harmony, much as they do in the films of Sam Raimi, whom the Coens worked for in their beginning days. Tones, persons, decisions within individual persons all engage in heated disagreement with the others. Western, noir, comedy of manners, a wholesome picnic where the knives are as liable to stab you in the back as cut the family Christmas roast; all the competing, rebellious, even deviant tones vying for pride of place speak not only to the inter-character interplay of democracy but the intra-character forks in our own personal moral and ethical roadmaps.
Typically, the Wild West is a known quantity: either a physical construct rooted in Enlightenment values and individualist volition or a revisionist excoriation of the same that transposes one reality – gee-shucks Americana brimming with possibility and potential futures – for another – vile and detestable emptiness defined as a land of closure, a world of death that revels not in new lives but the dredged-up, unerring march of destruction. Some of the most astute films corrode the false dichotomy, and colonize the mind with a morally fluxional imaginative realm rather than an assumption of one kind of singular, true reality or another. The West, like many physical locations, becomes not heaven nor hell, but a dialectical imaginative plane where people divine their personal identities by locating themselves mentally among the people and spaces around them. As an exploration of how this takes the form of personal myth-making, lying, and exaggerating as an inextricable core of humanity, Fargo emerges as part of an oblong Wild West tradition. While we assume the West was more-so the physical-world base for those imaginative flights of fancy, the film self-reflexively inserts the other side of the dialectic: figments of our imagination, like dreams and delusions of grandeur, also construct those physical world places in the first place.
Why else would the WASPY, arch-domesticated home of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) – who does a bad thing at the onset of Fargo and then expends the film trying to correct it – morph to the contours of his ingratiating, self-composed, all-American personality? His abode – a marker of his assumption that he has civilized the forbidding exterior – is physically removed from the hoarse, rugged Monument Valley beauty of a John Ford film, but in Lundegaard’s genial but warped, impassively person-oriented but perpetually aloof mind, they might as well be one in the same.
Such dialectical contrasts course through Fargo’s bones with a frightening consistency, but they aren’t all bounded by the minds of the characters. Many of them are thematic, but the majority are tonal in a film that is screwy and squirrelly but also placid and gifted with a willingness to linger on its almost silently unfurling bedlam that sneaks up on you with a dumbfounding, disarming innocence. An innocence punctured by human guilt and in turn blanketed by desperate facades of innocence until the two form a slurry of unflagging sense and unfettering senselessness, upended traditionalism and steadfast classicism, a series of contrasts that somehow approximates and perverts the complex, backwoods-to-big-city complications of the American identity. At its heart, Fargo is the story of America: people giving in, screwing up, and trying, sometimes hopelessly, to save face not only for others but to pacify our own internal demons.
So often beleaguered by the weight of misguided critics who labor on about the mistaken elitism and mockery implicit in many of the Coens’ films, the two-headed writer-director in reality exhibits something more akin to the dialectical, intentionally contradictory, pungent empathy of a modern day Mark Twain. Both insiders and outsiders to the location and the people they depict, and both mainstream and curiously reticent about their mainstream airs, the filmmaking pair hovers at a crippling remove from their characters and burrows into their hearts termite-like. Rather than devouring or endearing themselves to their characters, they exhibit a sort of tough-love spiked with bemusement and curiosity about people, treating them both like specimens to be examined and old friends to have a drink with, another of the many dialectics and question marks in a film that feels so wonderfully and disarmingly unsure of itself. The overwhelming sense of Fargo is a film in disagreement with itself, both smitten with the dogged determinism of this Midwestern spirit and desperately frightened of the depths of guilt with which that spirit will plunge to cover up its own mysteries and erect facades of innocence.
In a film primarily about masks and costumes, the nominally welcoming, festive snow – turned unholy by Roger Deakins’ cinematography of terrible grandeur mixed with bubbles of everyday lived-in detail – may be the most bewildering and malevolent a mask of all. Which is the beauty of the Coens’ witch brew: the dichotomies and counterpoised tension in their characters are embodied formally in a liberal application of a style that encapsulates those very questions. The visual shifts from domestic clutter to nearly Bergmanesque abstract limbo, the tonal fluctuation from loosey-goosey charisma to stone-faced terror; all feel like a film actively discovering its own identity on a minute-by-minute basis, a work in a tonal free-fall acclimatizing itself to its own amorality and then painting itself over in niceties and human decency in a bracing attempt to save face or locate whatever humanity it can within its pitch-black heart.
Even the warmth is prickly and fraught with icicles and self-doubt, and even the coldest night is saved from oblivion by the mollifying glow of simple human curiosity and decency. The filmmaking itself, thorny but sympathetic, prying but removed, corroborates the tensions of two writer-directors unsure of their place in their own culture, and of people insecure in their place relative to their own minds. The comedy and the mystery are not alternatives to a cavernous well of silent sadness, but points of ingress into the folded-over facets of a discombobulated mind – and a discombobulated film – salvaging its sanity while investigating whether there’s any sanity to save.