Not Really a True Story
It’s always the same. It’s always more.
—Frustrated car buyer, Fargo
Fargo, you read before the credits begin, “is a true story.” So far, so routine. The disclaimer goes on to assert that “events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987,” with names changed “at the request of survivors.” And if it does sound a bit odd that, “Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred,” for the most part, this opening notice is familiar to the point of banality. You might not even notice it. Equally conventional are the film’s basic plot elements—murder, betrayal, car salesmen, and wood chippers—the usual ripped-from-the-headlines stuff that doesn’t ask you to suspend too much belief.
But Joel and Ethan Coen’s award-winning movie isn’t “usual” anything. As MGM’s new Special Edition DVD reminds you, it is an eccentric hybrid of conventions and provocations, never quite settling into an identifiable genre or resolution. The first image is a spread of dreary, swirling whiteness. A car’s headlights slowly emerge, moving toward the camera in long shot, such that the background becomes readable as a snowy highway, a desolate nowhere on the way to somewhere else. This transformation isn’t so much startling as it is stark and foreboding.
The Coens are experts at this kind of slippage, visual and thematic; they’re as renowned for their inventive manipulations of lenses and steadicams as for their deconstructive smartassness. As cinematographer (and frequent Coens collaborator) Roger Deakins notes on his commentary track for the DVD, the first white-on-white image took days to set up and shoot, because it was “one of the least snowy winters on record, I believe, for Minnesota.” Then he laughs, recalling that much of the snow “in the rest of the film was created by an ice-chipping machine. But this,” he adds, as the car at last surges through the whiteness in close-up, “is for real.”
Less clearly, he goes on, the story isn’t exactly “true, but “based on a number of different instances, it’s not really a true story, um, obviously. But there were some events that happened I think, hat the boys constructed their script from. And because of that, we wanted to make it much more observational than Barton Fink  or Hudsucker Proxy . The camerawork is much more restrained, really. There’s not a lot of fast tracks and flowery sort of camera moves.” This lack of “visual pyrotechnics,” he notes, serves the “bizarre story,” made more “bizarre because it’s played so straight.”
As Deakins speaks, you see how it works. Much like Blood Simple (1984) and Miller’s Crossing (1990), is a genre film turned inside out, which means that it maintains an obvious affection for the conventions that it’s twisting. In this case, the genre is true crime. If Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood (1967), based on Capote’s nonfiction novel, is an unusually well-respected example of the genre, more often, true crime is trashed for being voyeuristic and sensationalistic, by definition. In other words, the genre hardly needs the Coens to make it look warped.
Still, Fargo illustrates some of the genre’s complexities, its multiple addresses and ambiguous moralizing, its squishy distinctions between fact and fiction. At its cagiest, the movie’s exploring the paradox at the center of true crime (and its idiot cousin, reality tv): promising to reveal something real, to elucidate motive or significance, it can’t possibly deliver. Instead, it piles up details, granting the illusion that you can “tell” what makes a villain tick, that you can define deviance in contrast to some arbitrary norm. But true crime is always, at bottom, about the lack of such knowledge: criminal rationale remains opaque, evil remains incomprehensible, the world still seems random.
Fargo‘s spin on this unnerving excess reveals this disorder. Presenting mundane characters, terrible treacheries, and the wondrous Marge (Frances McDormand, who won an Oscar for her portrayal), it never resolves its human mysteries, only leaves them for you to ponder. And frankly (if appropriately), the DVD doesn’t offer much in the way of explication either, though it includes the text of an American Cinematographer article, “Cold-Blooded Scheming,” essentially an interview with Deakins by Chris Probst; a making-of documentary, “Minnesota Nice,” named for the “polite culture” of the area, and in which you can watch the Coen brothers finish one another’s sentences, which they do frequently); an informative segment from the The Charlie Rose Show, featuring the Coens and McDormand, who is married to Joel; and a “Trivia Track,” which periodically “pops up” facts, VH1-style (such as, “The Radisson Hotels are named for French explorer Pierre Esprit Radisson” or “Minnesota has more shoreline than California, Florida, and Hawaii combined”).
The crime at the film’s center begins with car salesman Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy), so desperate for money that he arranges to have his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrud) kidnapped, with the hope that her wealthy father Wade (Harve Presnell) will pay off big time. The kidnappers are also desperate, but in ways more serious than Jerry can even begin to fathom. Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) are chilling: witnesses can only describe the Carl as “kinda funny-lookin’,” but Gaear exudes a meanness that makes even his partner squirm.
Exchanges among these characters are also kinda funny, at once ordinary and peculiar. Jerry can’t quite articulate his frustrations, but you know what he means. “You see,” he tells Carl and Gaear in the dive where they’ve met to discuss money, “These are personal matters.” The pros smirk at his awkwardness, and you know they’re right: he’s a loser. When you see Jean, chirpy and air-headed in her Minneapolis home, you may smile at her inanity too. But then the kidnappers crash through onto the scene, wearing black ski masks and carrying crowbars, and their brutality makes any joke at her expense look suddenly cruel. As she runs screaming from the shower where she’s tried to hide, the shower curtain blinding her and flapping about as she falls down the stairway, give even the vile Carl pause. Later, as Jerry rehearses his phone call to Wade, the camera frames the tv, left on static following her terrifying abduction, bringing all odd threads of representation and comprehension together.
In this context of this series of foolish, vicious acts, Marge is most welcome. Practical-minded and shrewd, she’s the teeny-town police chief who tracks the kidnappers after they shoot a state trooper and a couple of passing motorists, as they pass through her jurisdiction. (This would be Brainerd, ND, “Home of Paul Bunyan”: a huge commemorative statue is shown whenever anyone enters or leaves town, emphasizing, in its own bizarre way, the disquieting overlap of reality and fiction; on the occasion of the new DVD’s release, a similarly grand statue of Marge, by chainsaw artist David Westberg, has been erected in Fargo: what goes around, etc.
The sequence showing the motorists’ murders (they witness Carl hefting the trooper’s body, and Gaear hauls after them in a hurry, hunting them down with intense ferocity) is as unsettling as any in the film. Deakins notes, “I love the red and the white,” referring to the cars’ overlapping red taillights (“boosted,” Deakins admits) and the snowy expanse into which the hapless victims flip and crash, as well as the red parka worn by the deadmeat boy (played by the film’s storyboard artist, Jay Todd).
At this point, Marge appears for the first time, introduced by way of a pan over her husband’s art, wooden ducks he’s crafted for sale. Awakened just before dawn, she yawns and stretches, and in one, long, deliberate take, her home and her condition are revealed: she’s seven months pregnant. This allows for some morning sickness jokes and gives her a decidedly unthreatening appearance. She spends her off-duty hours being sympathetic to the pressures felt by her painter husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch) or watching a nature show on late-night TV (in which a bug “throwing off the larval envelope,” a moment that’s both grotesque and prosaic).
When she’s not hunkered down over an all-you-can-eat buffet at the local family restaurant, Marge is making uncannily accurate sense of the crime scenes, gauging exactly what happened and how (this body’s here, so that means the shot came from there). She’s a remarkable detective, and states her dead-on conclusions with lilting regional vocal rhythms and a sweet smile that make her seem innocuous.
It sounds like a Columbo plot but it’s not. Marge is atypical precisely because of her typicality. The film’s focus on her day-to-day activities begins to seem almost distracting. While investigating in Minneapolis, she meets up with a former schoolmate, Mike (Steve Park), an encounter that seems wholly extraneous at first. But it’s such a strange bit of business that it stays with you, as you try to figure out what it has to do with Marge’s dedicated, wily tracking of the criminals. Mike tells her a weird and tragic life story, but she’s utterly unable to decipher it or his motives, which makes you start to doubt her abilities, and in turn, you start to wonder about your own ability to decode what’s going on.
This is the film’s genius, its simultaneous emulation and excavation of true crime’s obsession with dull or spectacular minutiae, coupled with a refusal to make such details cohere into master plans and meanings. Its violent scenes are quick, crude and awful, with blood all over the place (as when one character is shot in the face, or another disposes of a body in the now infamous wood chipper), but they don’t really take you where you think you’re headed at any given point. As it reveals obsessiveness, disillusionment, and eventually, some kind of arbitrary and troubling justice, Fargo closes the distance between you and them, so that you’re left to suspect your own interest in what you’re watching.