clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘Fargo’ Is the Coen Brothers’ Through Line

Twenty-five years later, the movie stands as a pseudo thesis of the things the directors have been interested in all along

Ringer illustration

“Two more months.”

The last line of Fargo refers to the impending arrival of a baby: the countdown to a new life being brought into the world. In 1996, the film’s coda—a warmly lit two shot of expectant mother Marge (Frances McDormand) cuddling in bed with her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch)—seemed uncharacteristically hopeful for smart-aleck operators like the Coen brothers; to date, the duo’s endings mostly had been ambiguous, or even borderline menacing. Think of Gabriel Byrne keeping his heartbreak (what heart?) under his hat at the windup of Miller’s Crossing, or the surreal finale of Barton Fink, with its would-be voice-of-a-generation scribe washed up on the shores of Hollywood. “You ain’t no writer, Fink, you’re a goddamned write-off!”

But looking at Fargo 25 years later, maybe that ending isn’t so happy after all. One of the common denominators in the Coens’ movies—the wool-silk thread, you could say, that really ties them all together—is the promise of continuity represented by childbirth: [extreme Sam Elliott voice] “The way the whole goldarned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself on down the generations.” Both Raising Arizona and No Country for Old Men end on characters subconsciously preoccupied with matters of paternity, relating dreams of or about fatherhood to the audience in a way that turns us into their confessors. Because Raising Arizona is a comedy—the Coens’ sweetest movie, in fact, teeming with good vibes—Nicolas Cage is gifted with a vision of himself as, to quote George Clooney in another goldarned human comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the “goddamned paterfamilias.” Because No Country for Old Men is not a comedy, Tommy Lee Jones slowly realizes in close-up that time has passed him by, but you’re never too old to wish your dad was around to look out for you out there in All That Dark. He wishes that it was so, and then he wakes up.

Fargo, we might say, occupies a middle point between Raising Arizona and No Country for Old Men, not only tonally as a movie hybridizing the brothers’ screwball and noir sides in the package of a faux-true-crime procedural (it is most decidedly not based on a true story, whatever the opening credits say), but also as a midway point between their early incarnation as regional, independently subsidized outliers and untouchable, studio-backed auteurs. Fargo was not the first great movie that the Coens made (that’d be their 1984 debut, Blood Simple) or their first award-magnet (Barton Fink swept Cannes in 1991), or even their first hit (Raising Arizona’s good humor and better reviews resulted in a healthy return on investment). But it was the first thing they made after the expensive debacle of The Hudsucker Proxy and its return to basic, blood-simple principles helped its reception as the best and most accessible thing they’d made to date—a status that, notwithstanding the slow-burning cult love for The Big Lebowski, went unchallenged until No Country for Old Men’s similarly stripped-down, cops-and-killers story line connected with a downbeat, post–Iraq War zeitgeist and proceeded directly into the modern canon.

“Can’t stop what’s coming,” was the line that stuck out to some as the skeleton key to unlocking No Country’s airtight, vacuum-sealed perfection. The “what” in the movie is, of course, Death, personified by Javier Bardem’s Man-Come-Around Anton Chigurh but dealt out by other parties as well, usually at random and/or at a price. (If there’s a better symbol of the mercenary nature of murder than Anton’s life-or-death coin flip, I don’t know it.) In retrospect, Fargo—still wonderfully funny and quotable after all these years, and probably sadder than you remember—plays a bit like a dry run for No Country’s existential dread. The big difference lies at its center: Marge and her seven-months-pregnant belly represent an implacable life force, one that can staunch the spatter of blood against white snow. Near the end of the film, Marge encounters Peter Stormare’s Gaear Grimsrud, a proto–Anton Chigurh, trying to dispose of evidence by feeding it through a woodchipper. The fact that the material in question is the body of his former colleague Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) sets up a splendidly grotesque visual joke—she’s literally caught the guy red-handed. It also signifies on a deeper level: Beneath the loud, whirring sounds of the machine, the Coens serve up a perverse vision of renewal, as if the innards dribbling out of the metal vent are somehow fertilizing the hard, frozen ground below.

To this point in Fargo, Gaear has been presented as an unstoppable force, menacing Jean Lundegaard (Kristin Rudrüd) during her abduction, murdering a young male police officer at a nighttime traffic stop en route to his hideout, and then running down and killing the witnesses to the crime. Finally, he fatally attacks Carl with an ax after a disagreement about how to split their ill-gotten gains. When Marge appears and points to the badge on her sheriff’s cap, he runs, and is easily cut down to size by a well-placed gunshot to the calf muscle. Amazingly, the lethal hulk falls at Marge’s feet.

An avatar of female authority—powerfully heightened by her dual status as a wife and expectant mother—Marge is an amazing creation, and the casting of McDormand in what became her Oscar-winning role was to some extent a fait accompli. The actress had been appearing in the Coens’ films since 1984, the same year that she married elder brother Joel and starred in Blood Simple. Fargo’s climax echoes the final showdown of that earlier film, in which McDormand’s Abby holds her ground against the villainous private eye Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), shooting him down in self-defense as he stalks her through an empty apartment.

That Abby is the last woman standing in a modern film noir is surely significant; the genre the Coens are riffing on typically kills off its femme fatales before the final reel. However, her victory is far from total. In the final shots of the film, she’s less triumphant than confused. “I ain’t afraid of you, Marty,” she snarls, sitting in the dark, at Visser, who is hidden on the other side of the wall where he’s laughing at the irony of the situation. The detective dies for his client’s sins, and Abby—who’s never met the latter—is merely fate’s instrument.

Marge Gunderson, though, is unmistakably given the last word in Fargo’s fable of twisted, toxic masculinity. White-collar crook Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is swallowed up in the morass of moral and ethical compromise, as surely as the goons he hired to kidnap his wife in order to secretly extract a small fortune from his arrogant, withholding, deep-pocketed father-in-law. “There’s more to life than a little bit of money,” Marge softly chides Gaear as he sits handcuffed in the back of her police cruiser. (A great moment: He looks at a statue of Paul Bunyan by the side of the road and dimly recognizes himself as the towering figure swinging the ax—or maybe that he’s on his way to the chopping block.) She prods him further in Fargo’s iconic North Dakotan accent: “Don’t you know that?” Gaear’s silence speaks volumes. He doesn’t know that, nor do any of the other blood simple men in Fargo, none of whom get to lay hands on the money that’s caused all of the havoc in the first place.


Ransoms are commonplace in Coen brothers films, from Blood Simple and The Big Lebowski to The Man Who Wasn’t There and Hail, Caesar!. Speaking broadly, one of the Coens’ pet themes is that money is the root of all evil, which connects them to a cinematic lineage stretching from Erich von Stroheim’s Greed to John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre to Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. If the Coen brothers have a mantra, it might be to flip Gordon Gekko’s infamous creed that “greed is good” and say that it is, in fact, bad. Not a new insight, perhaps, but in cinema, as in life, the fundamental things apply.

It’s not surprising that the Coens chose to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, in which a suitcase full of money and the civilian who has extricated it from the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad are pursued through Texas and Mexico by a hired killer. If Marge is the ultimate Coen hero (or at least neck and neck with the Dude, whom she resembles in their shared meek-shall-inherit vibe), Anton Chigurh is, to quote the guy who spends the movie tangling with him, their ultimate badass. But as fun as it is to imagine a mash-up where she’s tracking him instead of Tommy Lee Jones, the real kinship is with Chigurh’s final victim. In McCarthy’s novel, Carla Jean Moss is confronted by Chigurh in her home after the death of her husband Llewellyn and told to flip the coin like so many unlucky souls before her. “God would not want me to do that,” she pleads, before cooperating out of bare desperation. She calls heads, but the coin comes up tails, and after a few more words of explanation from Chigurh, an exhausted Carla Jean admits ruefully that she’s come around to his way of thinking. McCarthy writes: “Good he said. That’s good. Then he shot her.”

The Coens’ version of Carla Jean is a little tougher and more worldly than her literary counterpart. Played by the Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, who was 30 when the role was shot, she avoids any teenaged affectations. When Chigurh offers her the chance to let the coin decide her fate, she chides him that “the coin don’t have no say … it’s you.” She doesn’t play along. She doesn’t beg for her life. Without getting up out of her seat or even lifting a finger, she stands up to Anton Chigurh and his warped worldview more forcefully than any other character in the movie. In the ultimate gesture of respect, the Coens honor her resistance by cutting discreetly away from her demise.

As the lone important female in a movie whose masculine thrust begins with its title, Macdonald’s Carla Jean is not frequently discussed in reviews of No Country for Old Men, but the choice to position her one scene with Bardem as a final reckoning is crucial. In the film, as in the book, Chigurh is laid low by a car accident on his way back from Carla Jean’s house. McCarthy seems to intend the smashup as proof of his villain’s theories of predestination—he’s on the wrong end of a cosmic coin flip. The Coens, though, suggest that Carla Jean’s stubbornness is what finally throws her killer off-course.

Not only do the Coens slightly reroute McCarthy’s themes, they also trace a path back to their own work. We’re back to the end of Fargo, where Gaear Grimsrud sits caged in a police car behind Marge Gunderson. Neither woman can quite comprehend the brute greed around her. Gaear doesn’t know that there’s more to life than a little bit of money, and neither does Anton Chigurh, whose own choice of a coin as an “instrument” is symbolic in a way that outstrips even his own intentions. All of Chigurh’s lofty talk of principles boils down to what is an unquestioning worship of the almighty dollar.

In the novel, Chigurh eventually tracks down the money and brings it to its “rightful” owner—a nameless white-collar thug who is glad to receive it. In the movie, the money disappears and its fate remains unknown. Just as the Coens sensitively refuse to put an exclamation point on Carla Jean’s death, they resist this particular bit of narrative closure. This is a typical move: In The Big Lebowski, the ransom money disappears and is barely mentioned for the second half of the movie. In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the “treasure” that sets the whole plot in motion turns out to be nothing but a rumor. In The Ladykillers, the gang’s ill-gotten gains are donated to Bob Jones University, which is to say that the money is as good as gone. And in Fargo, Carl Showalter buries a million dollars in the middle of nowhere and the secret of its location dies with him.

At the end of the movie, Marge beams when her husband’s painting is selected to represent the state’s new three-cent stamp. It’s a literal penny-ante honor that she invests with greater worth through her supportive adulation. (Like so many husbands in the arts, Norm just needs his ego stroked.) Again, that coziness: the triumphant police woman returns home to her supportive husband—a gently feminist reversal on gender roles—and they contemplate a new life together with their new family.

But the blessings of home and hearth didn’t stop Jerry Lundegaard from wanting more or sacrificing Jean on the altar of that greed. The only child in the movie, the Lundegaards’ son, Scotty (Tony Denman), is shown crying quietly as his father lies about trying to get Mom back; he’ll never see her again. The bodies littering Fargo’s landscape are all victims of circumstance—of a terrible, randomized violence that no amount of investigations or arrests can staunch. Even off to the side of the bloodletting, Steve Park’s Mike Yanagita, an Asian American dead ringer for Jerry whose mild-mannered exterior masks a sinister agenda, stands as a symbol of other things perpetuating themselves on down through the generations: lying, psychosis, manipulation. Greed isn’t good, but it is popular; as H.I. says in Raising Arizona (via Lillian Gish in The Night of the Hunter), “Sometimes, it’s a hard world for the little things.” We may want to see Marge and Norm as symbols of the normalcy threatened by grifters like Jerry and monsters like Gaear Grimsrud, and wish that being tucked safely into bed would keep the world at bay. But if the fade-out of Fargo truly reassures us of anything, it’s that you can’t stop what’s coming.

Two more months, sure. And then what?

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.