Fargo (1996)

Joel Cohen, Ethan Cohen

Greed, Evil, Folly

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

Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) has had it up to here working under the thumb of his cold, stingy father-in-law, Wade Gustafsan.  For years Jerry has been the lead salesman in the old man’s Minneapolis car dealership.  But when his father-in-law refuses Jerry a loan with which to make a potentially lucrative investment, Jerry has had enough.

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So he cooks up a perfectly madcap scheme by which to swindle Wade out of $1 million: he will hire a couple shady characters to stage a kidnapping of Jerry’s wife.  The story will be that the kidnappers will kill her if the police get involved and so the whole thing has to be a private transaction to hand over the $1 million ransom.  Jerry knows Wade will do it to save his daughter’s life.  A simple plan.  What could go wrong?  Jerry has it all arranged: the kidnappers will be told they can get half of an alleged $80,000 ransom, leaving Jerry to get the other half (and, unbeknownst to the two thugs, another $960,000 on top of that).  For $20,000 a piece, the two thugs agree.  Why not?  Easy money.

Predictably, the fabric of the whole terrible scheme unravels right down to the last tawdry thread.  The two crooks Jerry hires prove to be a ridiculous (but plenty dangerous) imbecile named Carl (Steve Buscemi) and—far, far worse—a remorseless psychopath named Gaear (Peter Stormare).

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Before it is finished, a state trooper, two innocent bystanders, a parking garage attendant, Wade Gustafson, and Jerry’s wife will all end up murdered in cold blood before Carl and Gaear turn on each other resulting in Gaear’s grimly creative use of a wood chipper to try to dispose of Carl’s dismembered body.

Meanwhile, sleuthing it all and piecing the clues together is the 7-months pregnant local cop from nearby Fargo, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) who in the end smells a few rats and ends up putting a bullet into the leg of Gaear as he flees the wood chipper into which he had been feeding one of Carl’s legs.

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As they drive away from the crime scene with the frighteningly silent Gaear handcuffed and in the back seat of Marge’s squad car, she says “So I gather that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor back there.  And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper.  And those three people in Brainerd.  And for what?  A little bit of money.  There’s more to life than a little money, you know.  Don’t you know that?  And here you are.  And it’s a beautiful day.  Well . . . I just don’t understand it.”

The “beautiful day” in question was actually a frigid day of furious snow squalls, and yet Marge sees beauty in it even as she sees nothing but bafflement in trying to comprehend such heinous acts done in the name of greed.  Soon Jerry Lundegaard himself will be caught in a motel room, literally crying like a baby as the police take him into custody, his world (and that of his young son) now completely and irredeemably shattered.

And we viewers are left to wonder, too, how to understand it.  How does a moderately well off husband and father of a teenaged son hit upon such a terrible plan?  How does he think it could ever end well?  How does one thing so often lead to another in our lives until we are staring back at such an unholy mess we no longer seem to know right from left, up from down?

There are many reactions to the evil of this world.  But in the end we are perhaps at our most God-like when we join Officer Gunderson in looking at it all and declaring, “I just don’t understand it.”  How is it that we don’t know what really matters in life?  Why don’t we know?  Were we never told?

We were.  That we so easily forget is, well, just baffling in the end.

written by Scott Hoezee