I just saw a video of the Coen brothers movie Fargo, which I hadn’t seen before. For those as far out of the loop as I am, it’s an odd sort of comedy about a wormy car salesman in Minneapolis who has money problems and decides to hire a couple of thugs to kidnap his wife in exchange for a new car and half the ransom. He tells the thugs the ransom is $80,000 but tells his moneybags father-in-law/employer it’s $1,000,000, planning to pocket the difference. Naturally everything goes wrong, 7 people (including his wife, his father-in-law and one of the thugs) get murdered, and the wormy car salesman gets dragged off in his undies kicking and screaming to prison.
That’s not much of a plot line for a comedy, and it’s a strange comedy. Most of the humor involves ethnic and regional stereotypes. All the characters, except the crooks and to some extent the father-in-law with his accountant sidekick, are a New Yorker’s fantasy of small-town Minnesotans: terminally simple-minded, at least on the surface, and effusively friendly, cheerful and nice. They all speak with mild Scandinavian accents. Even the nerdy total-social-failure Asian guy who makes a brief appearance as the heroine’s old flame says “oh ja” with a Swedish lilt. There are no blacks or Hispanics in the movie at all, even in background shots, presumably because their presence would complicate the setting. When the directors want a lowlife minority they bring in an American Indian.
With the central characters the stereotypes get wackier and tend to reverse themselves, rather in the manner of the old screwball comedies. The heroine is the police chief of Brainerd, Minnesota, pop. 13,178, seven months pregnant and married to a somewhat overweight baldheaded man who happens to be an aspiring artist (at the end his painting of a duck gets chosen as the design for a 3-cent stamp). Apart from the role reversal, both heroine and hubby are terminally nice and normal small-town upper midwesterners. Hubby fusses over pregnant wife’s eating, wife makes special stop after visiting scene of bloody triple murder to pick up nightcrawlers so hubby can go icefishing.
The heroine is the best thing about the movie. She’s simple-minded in many ways, with no comprehension of human evil or even everyday psychological weirdness and screwups. She refers to a bloody triple murder as “malfeasance,” and when the wormy car salesman suddenly goes zipping away in his car, because he doesn’t like the direction things are going, she’s shocked and horrified that he’s “fleeing an interview.” Genuinely puzzled, she asks the surviving thug, an evident psychopath, why he did it “for just a little bit of money. It’s not worth it. Don’t you see that? And it’s such a nice day …” .
Whatever her limitations, she’s one of the great screen cops. She’s levelheaded, absolutely unflappable, and effortlessly effective in dealing with every possible situation. She’s a living demonstration how far it’s possible to go doing what’s obviously correct when you don’t miss or fumble anything. Her single-handed invasion and conquest of the bad guys’ hideout is going a bit far for someone who’s so pregnant, but by that time we’re ready to believe anything. And she does it all without show. Other actresses when they do something intelligent under the cover of social convention mug for the camera to show how clever they know they’re being. Our heroine doesn’t. Her simplicity, to a large extent, means she’s for real.
The other characters were also quite good in their way, if more limited than the heroine. Naturally there were also things I didn’t like about the movie. Everything was very mannered. The photography was striking and interesting but tried too hard. Not letting us know the source of the car salesman’s money problems struck me as annoyingly arty. Also, this movie, like a lot of current entertainment, has something brutal and degraded about it. The murders as well as a couple of short sex scenes are made part of the comedy through a somewhat exaggerated quality (a cop gets shot in the head and blood spurts out, one thug feeds another into a wood chipper). It’s all physically possible, though, so it’s not denatured as violence and can’t be passed off as slapstick. It’s just horrible violence graphically depicted presented as funny because it’s surprising and out-of-the-ordinary. Also, the wife was represented as well-meaning but stupid and ridiculous. I can see why a filmmaker would not want us to work up too much sympathy for a character who’s going to spend most of the film bound and gagged and end up getting murdered. Still, I don’t think there’s anything comical about a ridiculous person who wriggles and squeals in an absurd way getting murdered.
Some thoughts and questions:
- Is it easier to make a good movie on a small budget than a large one? It seems that limited means would focus your efforts and that might mean you end up with something more intelligent and coherent.
- Why is entertainment so brutal today? Maybe it’s the same reason literary scholarship has become so political. Fine distinctions can be appreciated for what they are if you have a settled system that’s tied into some overarching reality that tells you where you are and what things amount to. When that’s absent everything becomes a matter of pure assertion and so ultimately of lust and violence.
- Most humor is based on stereotypes of one sort or another. So a basic function of PC is to tell us what we’re allowed to laugh at. “Inappropriately directed laughter” really does make sense as a target of speech codes.