Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 1996
#6, 1996 Skandies

If you've been visiting my site for a while you probably already know what I have to say about this one, because while I have somehow managed not to see it since I started doing these writeups, I saw Fargo several times in the '90s and have discussed it at least briefly a few times since then. It's interesting that I happened to rewatch it not long after getting caught up on Mad Men, a show about a bunch of people who find happiness eternally elusive. Fargo tackles the same subject and, on the surface, seems more optimistic about it, positing that lasting contentment is indeed possible — but further reflection suggests that it might actually be even bleaker, given what the movie puts forward as the secret to that contentment.

Fargo attracted attention for taking a blood-soaked tale of crime gone awry and setting it among a bunch of Minnewegian bumpkins whose speech is an endless stream of singsongy yahs and oh jeezes and yer darn tootins. But its theme goes far deeper than this surface concept. Consider the three main characters:

First, there's car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, a desperate weasel with Paul Ryan eyes. He's got everything that is supposed to constitute happiness in Middle America: a steady job, a family, a two-story house. But his millionaire father-in-law has more, and that gnaws at Jerry, makes him feel like what he has isn't enough. He tries scamming GMAC to make up some of the difference, but now they're onto him so he needs some serious money fast. Thus, he concocts a scheme to hire a couple of cons to kidnap his wife; his father-in-law will pay a huge ransom and Jerry will pocket most of it.

Carl Showalter is one of the cons. He signs on to carry out the kidnapping and risk a prison term in exchange for $20,000 and a brown Oldsmobile. The wisdom in this seems dubious and for quite a while things really don't go his way — his partner flips out and makes him an accessory to multiple homicide, another associate thrashes him with a belt, and Jerry's father-in-law shoots him in the face while delivering the ransom — but then fortune delivers Carl a break. See, Jerry said that the ransom would be $80,000, $40,000 of which would go to Carl and his partner. This was a ruse. Jerry told his father-in-law that the ransom was a million dollars. But Jerry didn't account for the possibility that his father-in-law would disregard the kidnappers' instructions and insist on delivering the ransom himself. That means that Jerry misses his chance to set aside the $920,000 the kidnappers don't know about. Now Carl has it. He buries it in the snow and returns to the hideout. And there he gets into a fight with his partner over ownership of the Oldsmobile, a fight that ends with Carl taking a hatchet to the neck and ending up in a wood chipper. Why? This is just insanely stupid. When his partner insisted that his share included half the Oldsmobile, Carl could have just given it to him, bid him farewell, dug up his money, and bought a whole fleet of brown midsize sedans. But Carl isn't thinking in terms of coming out ahead of where he started; he already thinks of the buried $920,000, plus his half of the agreed-upon ransom money, plus the car, as his, and the idea of accepting a mere $960,000 when he could have $960,000 plus a 1987 Cutlass Ciera makes him throw a fit. It's crazy, but we see the same phenomenon at work even when Jerry is doing his regular job. He'd agreed to sell a couple a car for $19,500, but then tacked on an extra $500 for some sealant the couple didn't want — which he then "discounts" to $400 after pretending to talk about it with his boss. That maneuver earns him, what, $100 of commission? He's willing to reduce himself to clumsy lies, infuriate his customers, and subject himself to a string of deserved invective, for an extra hundred bucks? But as the guy buying the car fumes to his wife, "These guys — it's always the same! It's always more!"

Now consider Marge Gunderson. On the surface, she's not really doing any better than Jerry. Her house is smaller, and it's up in Brainerd, Minnesota, an isolated little town surrounded by vast expanses of blowing snow under a gray-white sky. Parkas and fur hats are required just to step outside, and Arby's is considered haute cuisine. Marge is the chief of police, so when anything goes wrong in town — such as the aforementioned multiple homicide — she's the one who has to answer the phone at 4 a.m. and drag herself out of bed, even seven months pregnant as she is.

But Marge is happy. One of the great moments of this movie comes shortly after that phone call, when her bald, doughy lummox of a husband grunts that "I'll fix yah some eggs — yah gotta eat a breakfast," and as he sits on his side of the bed hawking up some phlegm, Marge allows herself a private smile, secure in the knowledge that she is married to the best man in the world. It's this same fundamental contentment we hear in her speech at the end of the movie, after she's captured the surviving kidnapper and is driving him down to the police station, as she chides him that five people are dead, "And for what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life than a little money, yah know. Dontcha know that? And here y'are—" (in the back of a police car) "—and it's a beautiful day!" And we cut to a shot of the beautiful day:

Now, Marge may have the same goofy mannerisms as everyone else in the movie, but she's no dimwit. She proves to be more than competent both as a detective and as an officer, and wraps up the case in short order. So how can she fail to recognize that what we see above does not constitute beauty? Well… who says it doesn't? I say it doesn't, but then, I grew up in California, and so when I've lived in other places, I've never been able to shake the idea that I shouldn't have to put up with bad weather. 300th consecutive overcast day in Washington state? I could be living where it's always sunny. Drowning in humidity in New York? I could be living where humid days are nonexistent. Shoveling snow in Massachusetts? I could be living where you never see a snowflake. But unlike me, and Jerry, and Carl, Marge doesn't seem to feel the need to compare her lot with that of others. When her husband's painting of a mallard is chosen to adorn the 3¢ stamp, she is thrilled, and when he grumbles that another local painter won a spot on the 29¢ stamp, she insists that the 3¢ is every bit as good, and means it. The secret to happiness, Fargo seems to be saying, is not greater achievement, or more money, or a more attractive partner, or better weather, but just being an intrinsically happy person. We see things not as they are but as we are, and all that.

To a great extent I agree with this. That unhappiness is caused, not by lacking things, but by craving those things that you lack, is a reasonable paraphrase of the Second Noble Truth. I also believe in lagom, a Swedish term corresponding to the sense that you've got as much as it is reasonable to ask for, and lagom is pretty much encapsulated by Marge's concluding assessment that "heck, Norm, yah know, we're doin' pretty good." But there are a couple of things that give me pause. One is the suggestion that if you weren't born with a cheerful temperament then you're basically screwed — this is what I meant when I said up top that you can argue that Fargo is pretty bleak. But the movie never says that an outlook like Marge's can't be cultivated, so maybe I'm reading too much into it. As for the second…

…lagom is a concept that cuts both ways these days, and, really, always has. To me, lagom is violated when some cretin making a mid-six-figure income whines to the New York Times that he needs a tax cut because after paying private school tuition for three kids plus the rent on an Upper East Side apartment and the mortgage on the country house, he doesn't have enough left over for both the summer trip to Paris and the winter trip to Aruba. To the right-wing noise machine, lagom is violated when someone collecting food stamps has access to a refrigerator. And if poverty in America is insufficiently abject for Stuart Varney's liking — if there remains a class of people like Marge Gunderson who, despite not belonging to the aristocracy, can still say with some accuracy that they're doin' pretty good — it's because those who came before them didn't just shut up and accept their lot. I'm writing this on Labor Day, which Grover Cleveland was forced to sign into law as a federal holiday as a concession to outraged union workers after he broke the Pullman strike. Which is to say that, while it may come as a surprise to Eric Cantor, today we are celebrating the contributions of those who fought the business owners, who didn't just meekly accept the crumbs the rentier class deigned to hand out. So while yes I'm all for letting go of taṇhā, and yes I'm all for maintaining a firm sense of when you've got enough, even if your neighbor has more… on this day of all days it seems important to specify that none of that should mean letting up in the struggle against economic injustice.

comment on
comment on
comment on
return to the
Calendar page