One of Lawrence of Arabia’s most memorable shots is of a man on a camel, riding in the middle of a hazy, sun-baked desert, a great distance away from the camera. Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 masterpiece Fargo opens with a similar shot construct but the differences here are that instead of a bright, hot desert we see a blindingly white, snow-covered highway in Minnesota and instead of a man on a camel in the distance, we see a driver plowing along the road in a new late ’80s car. The car drives toward the camera and zooms by while Carter Burwell’s grand musical score sweeps us up in much the same way Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence score did. This is Fargo and it one of the best movies of the ’90s.
Can Fargo be considered a noir film? Well it certainly doesn’t look like a noir as film and literature lovers of the form have come to expect: dark, shadowy, expressive, moody, intricate and seductive. Fargo is none of those things and yet, it is so much more. Fargo (photographed by the incredibly brilliant Roger Deakins) is blanketed in miles and miles of white snow, light grey slush, bright parka’s, ice blue freezing temperatures and in the biggest departure from classic noirs – a main character comprised of decency and warmth with a love for pretty much all creatures (even a bag full of wiggling fishing worms she picks up for her husband).
What Fargo does have in relation to noirs are characters down on their luck, ones who scheme and plot to accumulate wealth, vicious killers and sinister plans that turn deadly very quickly.
Gerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy in the role of his career) meets two men (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) in a bar one night and describes to them that he’s in a bit of a financial crunch so he wants them to kidnap his wife so that his father-in-law will pay the ransom which the three men will split in half. $40,000 for Gerry, $40,000 for the kidnappers (plus a brand new Burnt Umber Sierra), the wife is released back home and everything’s good. Sounds simple enough.
Of course, in stories like this what can go wrong does go wrong. With the wife kidnapped by the duo, they are stopped by a patrolman on the highway. Things then go bad real quick. The stakes become much higher now and everyone involved, is now fighting for themselves. Once the violence starts, Fargo becomes a different movie. It becomes a detective story by entrance of one Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand in the role of her career). Marge, a local officer and pregnant with her first child, cares about her job, her husband Norm, her partners and understands the value of life. Simple things make her happy such as when Norm cooks eggs for her, Norm’s art on a three-cent stamp and a good Arby’s sandwich for lunch. Marge is also very, very good at her job.
A pair of dead bodies (including the patrolman’s) in the snow leads Marge to Gerry’s car dealership. A licence number found in the officer’s entry book is traced back to Gerry’s place of business. Gerry, squirmy and shifty appears nervous at Marge’s questioning but she decides to believe him as he denies any knowledge of the missing Burnt Umber Sierra – for now. One night Marge receives a call from a former classmate, Mike Yanagita, who she has not spoken to in many years. Marge, in town investigating the deaths, decides to meet mike for a drink.
Some viewers may find this sub-plot with the old classmate unnecessary as it brings in a new character an hour into the movie who is unrelated to Marge’s investigation, Gerry’s scheme or the kidnapper’s attempt to get the money. However, this minor character is a major, major key in putting the pieces together. Mike, a troubled, emotionally fraught man confesses to marge that he then married but lost his wife, a former classmate of both of theirs to leukemia and then breaks down crying front of Marge. Later, while talking to another friend, Marge learns that Mike’s tale was all made up. Mike never married the woman who is in fact very much still alive. This surprises Marge but more importantly, her instincts kick in: if Mike was lying to Marge then maybe, just maybe Gerry Lundergaard was too. She decides to not let him off the hook so easy when she visits him again.
A word about McDormand and Macy: even though they only share two scenes together amounting to four minutes of screen time in total, there is something absolutely magical happening here. She’s reading every move he makes and is every step ahead of him. Had the Coen’s realized Fargo would have become as celebrated as it did, maybe there would have been more scenes between these two great actors. McDormand’s Marge has of course, since become one of the most lauded female characters in movie history which is remarkable considering the character doesn’t even appear until after the 30-minute point in the movie but the second she does, she owns it completely.
As the story unfolds, the scheme completely unravels as do the key players. There are more sudden deaths, more blood, more panic and more shocking surprises. Fargo is full of humour but it is also full of bloody violence and the most gruesome acts are held right to the very end (who knew a wood-chipper was even capable of doing that?).
Fargo ends rather solemnly. With the kidnapping plot foiled and the key players involved now gruesomely murdered or captured by authorities, Marge tries to find the sense in all of it but comes up at a loss. A pregnant Marge wonders aloud why certain people are driven by greed the way they are. She points out that there are more important things to life. In this moment she is not only trying to understand why these types of things happen not just for herself, but for her future child.
Even though Fargo is full of greedy, scheming, desperate, sad, dishonest, violent individuals, we know that with people like Marge and her upcoming child in the world, it is still a good place.
What noir movies have you been watching this Noirvember? Let us know!