by Ryan Swen
The various films of Joel & Ethan Coen have as many similarities as differences, pinwheeling freely through genres, locations, and time periods with abandon. But curiously, only two of their films have taken place during wintertime: Inside Llewyn Davis and perhaps their signature film, Fargo. The two share little in common aside from the signature Coen Brothers wit and the fact that they are among the most acclaimed of the duo’s films—one is centered around a kidnapping and murder investigation in 1987 Minnesota, featuring two protagonists, while the other follows a single folk singer in 1961 New York over a variety of misadventures—but the climate seems essential to both. For the Coen Brothers, winter doesn’t represent holiday cheer, but rather bitterness and the unknown. Their standard fatalism is only amplified in the fields of snow, and the folly of men becomes ever more apparent.
Fargo is best known for its exaggerated portrayal of “Minnesota nice” and its fearless female central figure (a rarity in the Coens’ oeuvre), Marge Gunderson, played with compassion by Frances McDormand. But the police chief doesn’t appear until over half an hour into the film, and the viewer is first immersed in a melting pot of male impotence, cruelty, and murder, set against a forbidding backdrop. The opening shot tells the whole story: a car emerging out of the haze of snowfall, dwarfed by the surrounding fields of white and accompanied by Burwell’s majestic score. None of the characters, aside from Jerry Lundegaard’s (William H. Macy) wife and son, are intended to be remotely sympathetic, all to some degree self-absorbed, squirrely, or simply amoral. But the Coens can never seem to write boring or colorless characters, and they absolutely nail the tightrope walk that juggles a very serious and perilous kidnapping with the absurd.
An early highlight is the kidnapping of Jerry’s wife: a standard breaking-and-entering becomes slapstick as she eventually knocks herself out. However, the Coens never lose sight of the humanity and the almost pathetic nature of those who are lost to all-too-human failings.
On cue, this is where Marge enters into the film. Her character, one of the Coens’ most iconic, is an ideal mix of the domestic and the outdoors. She also makes a sharp contrast to the weak and weasely men of the first third, both with her confidence in her work and, in a strange way, her naiveté. Fargo is in many ways about Marge’s loss of innocence in the icy fields: her role in the story of Jerry begins with her investigating a triple homicide surrounded by snow and ends with her being forced to shoot someone non-fatally in a similar environment. In between, she is beset by deceit and uncertainty just as Jerry is. Eventually of course, the kidnapping falls apart, but virtually everyone suffers, even Marge, who is visibly shaken by the findings of her investigation.
Almost more than any other Coen Brothers movie, Fargo’s images are just as powerful as their words. Inevitably, it is the vast fields of snow that are the most striking: a man in a red sweater lying dead in the ice, a parking lot filled with cars. But the Coens choose to end their film on the most touching scene in any of their films: Marge and her husband cuddled up in bed, lit by firelight, talking about the baby she is about to have. It is in the warmth where humanity grows and thaws, as the wind and snow howl outside to no avail.
Ryan Swen is a freelance film critic and a volunteer at Scarecrow. He writes at Taipei Mansions (taipeimansions.com) and tweets at @swen_ryan, and his work can be found on Seattle Screen Scene and the Brooklyn Magazine Film Section.