Fargo (1996)

Joel Cohen, Ethan Cohen

Joy, Delight

Fargo, Written and Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Starring Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, and Steve Buscemi.   98 minutes, Rated R.

The bulk of the Coen brothers’ film Fargo is fraught with the tawdry and the evil.  A car salesman’s scheme by which to swindle his father-in-law out of $1 million goes about as badly as it can, resulting in chaos and a half-dozen senseless murders (see another Fargo entry that summarizes the film here).

But at the center of the story is the 7-months pregnant and whip smart Fargo police officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand).  Marge comes across as modest and unassuming but has the skills of a hard-bitten detective and so she is able to figure it all out in the end, collaring one thug and realizing the guilt of the man at the center of it all who set into motion a horrid set of events that predictably spun clean out of control.

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The film’s multiple grim sequences are punctuated, however, with a few shorter scenes of interaction between Marge and her kind husband, Norm (and several of those scenes involve a lot of zestful eating that seem to hint at reveling in life’s simple pleasures).  Norm comes across as something of a lovable underachiever who does not appear to be employed but who dabbles in carvings, etchings, and other works of art depicting ducks and other wildlife.  We learn eventually that Norm has entered a competition being sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service to have one’s artwork featured on some new forthcoming postage stamps.

As Fargo nears its end, dead bodies begin to pile up as the swindle scheme unravels.  We see an innocent woman lying dead on a kitchen floor.  We see one of the two chief thugs in the movie murdering and then dismembering his partner’s body, trying to dispose of the corpse through a horrifying use of a wood chipper.  We see the scheme’s instigator crying like a baby as the police handcuff him in the motel room where he was hiding out.

But two closing moments stand out for showing that even in this ridiculous world of crime and raw evil, there can yet be beauty, rejoicing, delight in all that God made good and that are still good if only we notice.  The first is when Marge is transporting the surviving killer to jail.  She tells him flat out that she cannot understand his string of heinous crimes all for “a little bit of money.”  But she then notes “And it’s a beautiful day.”  Of course, most of us might not regard a day of sub-zero temperatures and furious snow squalls as beautiful, but Marge can, Marge does.

Then, however, comes the real end of the film.  The very pregnant Marge and the very sweet Norm cuddle in bed to the flicker of the television set.  Norm informs Marge that his painting of a mallard duck had placed in the competition and would appear on a new 3-cent stamp.  Another artist captured the coveted 29-cent stamp (the going rate for letters then).  “No one uses the little [stamps]” Norm laments.  But Marge will have none of it.  She expresses a thrill and a delight tantamount to Norm’s having won an Oscar for best art direction or something.  “It’s wonderful!” she enthuses with absolute conviction.

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Norm then rests his hand on Marge’s swollen belly and says “Two more months.”  Marge places her hand on top of his and repeats “Two more months” and then sighs in delightful anticipation of their first child’s birth.

Yes, the child will be born into a world where all the terrible things that fill Fargo’s tragic plot are a reality.  Still and yet: for the pure in heart, there is yet joy, there is yet delight.  There are wonderful little happenings to celebrate like getting your artwork on a 3-cent stamp.  There is love and warmth and the anticipation of new life.

 

After all of the film’s sorrow and horror here is an unexpected vignette of joy worthy of a full-throated “Hallelujah.”  The clouds need not part, the world need not be fully redeemed just yet for there to be celebration-worthy moments of unalloyed delight that remind us of why God thought to create the whole thing in the first place.

The wise like Marge Gunderson stay on the lookout for such moments.  So must we all as the image of God gets renewed in us through Christ Jesus, who once said that the pure in heart are blessed because they will see God, perhaps spying God in even the everyday run of our ordinary lives.

written by Scott Hoezee