“In Fargo, a milieu of livid pettiness and stunted lives, capitalist migraines, and psychotic rampages prevails beneath the veneer of cheesy, Norman Rockwellian Middle America.”
With an enviable clutch of awards won (57, including two Oscars) and buzz from critics and viewers, the 1996 film Fargo enjoys an elevated position in the cultural pantheon (Internet Movie Data Base n.d.). Temporally, the film now fits within the middle period of Joel and Ethan Coen’s body of work that extends back to their 1984 debut Blood Simple. Fargo is of interest in part for exhibiting many of the auteurist themes and signatures that have circulated through more than a quarter century of the Coens’ oeuvre. These signatures include Hitchcockian manipulation of the audience’s knowledge (for example, as compared with that of the characters),1 dialogue peppered with catchphrases that circulate through the film,2 and the showy use of narrative devices (most notably, the MacGuffin [Truffaut 1967: 98-100]). In Fargo, Jerry Lundegaard’s need for money in answer to a debt that is never explained functions as the MacGuffin that drives the kidnap scheme — and sets a bloodbath into motion.3 Manipulation of the audience’s knowledge and expectations in Fargo begins with the opening title card that asserts, piously and speciously, that the film’s narrative is grounded in documented events. More abstractly, another Hitchcockian motif that is conjured in the Coens’ body of work is the apparently orderly world that is not as it seems to be. In Fargo, a milieu of livid pettiness and stunted lives, capitalist migraines, and psychotic rampages prevails beneath the veneer of cheesy, Norman Rockwellian Middle America.
Identity on Screen: Finding the Phallus
Gender is of interest in many (most? all?) films, although some have more interesting things to say about the topic than others, just as some films present more interesting visual aspects. For its part, Fargo presents noteworthy nuances and tensions in its gender constructions. In unpacking these, the conceptual distinction between the “penis” and the “phallus” is very useful.
For present purposes, the interpretation of gender constructions in Fargo may be enveloped within the question of who does (and does not) possess the phallus. The short answer to this question is that it is not the same people who (evidently) do and do not have penises! By implicitly differentiating penis and phallus, Fargo may be read as refusing gender traditionalism. Below, I more closely examine the film’s constructions of gender via two paired heterosexual dyads: Jerry and Jeannie Lundegaard and Marge and Norm Gunderson.
Throughout the film, all of Jerry’s plans flop while Fargo‘s judgment on his venal weakness is harsh. Jerry’s apprehension by the police is staged as a gang anal rape. In his underwear and on his stomach, he is held down and handcuffed on the bed by two police officers in a Bismarck, North Dakota hotel. Jerry’s crimes — and lack of the phallus — are decisively punished, as if the film yearns for real men with phallic sufficiency.4
The other notable dyad in Fargo is composed of Marge and Norm Gunderson. She’s the police chief of small-town Brainerd, Minnesota, and he is an artist devoted to painting rustic subject matter. At the end of the film, Marge has solved the gruesome case and taken Gaear into custody. For his part, Norm has realized a success when his painting has been selected for the three-cent stamp. Their triumphs contrast with the grasping overreach and hideous failure that characterize the rest of Fargo‘s ensemble.
As noted, Marge exhibits the investigative phallus to pursue and solve the cascade of crimes unleashed by Jerry’s kidnap plot. Moreover, beneath the apparent tranquility of their marriage, it is Marge who exhibits the wandering eye. Marge makes an effort to dress up and meet at a decent establishment with a long-unseen male high school friend, Mike Yanagita, while investigating in Minneapolis. Mike is revealed to be another phallically insufficient male — a middle-aged failure who lives with his parents and a disingenuous stalker who feigns having been married then widowed. During the encounter with Mike, Marge’s phallic sufficiency is underscored by having been mass spectaclized as authority via broadcast on television while investigating the triple homicide.
Despite Marge’s endowment with an appreciable measure of phallic sufficiency from her first appearance on screen, Fargo is not indifferent to the curiosity of the phallic female. A nod toward the departure from tradition arises in an incongruously comic moment toward the dénouement. To wit, Marge points to the police badge on her winter hat in order to alert Grier of the imminent peril of arrest while he is feeding Carl’s corpse into the wood chipper.
The toll collector is actually perched on one of the lower rungs of the market’s caste hierarchy, but is misrecognized by Carl as impersonating a position at its commanding heights. In this view, his comments constitute a classist tirade against an apparently decent working person. Carl’s classist expression of livid resentment, cross-dressed as anti-classism, is later punctuated by his off-screen execution of another toll booth operator following his shootout with Wade.
Despite the hazards, here is a lunge at identifying meaning in Fargo with respect to the right-left political spectrum (admittedly, one route among many into the text). Fargo may seem to channel many messages that flatter the left side of the political spectrum in its gaze on gender and on the corrosive impact of capitalist relations. However, tensions within the film beg further questions. To wit, how does its amalgam of cartoonish glibness and even icy contempt toward some of its creations interpolate an audience? Fargo is obviously not conservative in the traditionalist register as it resists saluting the timeless rhythms of the “old ways” via soft-focus nostalgia. Rather, the film may be taken to hurtle far beyond traditionalism as it channels the right-wing paradigm of the world as a cut-throat jungle (Altemeyer 2006). In this view, civility and civilization present a very thin veneer over a world of perpetual danger, white-knuckle threat, endless episodes of back-stabbing and double cross. True, Marge does finally crack the case — but only after seven people have been killed (the traffic cop, the two drive-bys, Wade, Jeannie, Carl, ticket booth operator), most of them innocent bystanders.
Altemeyer, Bob (2006). The Authoritarians. Accessed 18 July 2012 from: http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/.
Chaudhuri, Shohini (2006). Feminist Film Theorists. London: Routledge.
Internet Movie Data base (n.d.): “Fargo.” Accessed 18 July 2012 from: www.imdb.com/title/tt0116282/.
Mottram, James (2000). The Coen Brothers. London: B. T. Batsford.
Trauffaut, François (1967). Hitchcock. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- For example, in Blood Simple, Abby shots through a door at the end of the film believing that she is wasting her nasty husband. Alas, he was already dispatched, buried alive by the roadside. The audience knows what Abby does not, that she is actually shooting the sleazy private detective Visser. Similarly, the extensive cross-cutting in Fargo enables the audience to generally know what its ensemble of characters do not; to wit, the kidnapping plot, a heinously bad idea to begin with, is going tragically haywire. [↩]
- Catchphrases include “What’s the rumpus?” in Miller’s Crosssing (1990), “A line in the sand” in Big Lebowski (1998) — and “I’m not going to debate you” in Fargo. [↩]
- Hitchcock states that the MacGuffin is ideally something that is objectively trivial in itself: “The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatever,” since the MacGuffin functions to put the causal plot into motion (Truffaut 1967: 98). Other MacGuffins in the Coen’s corpus include the soiled rug in Big Lebowski that inaugurates the Dude’s quixotic quest and the suitcase of money in No Country for Old Men (2007) that Moss discovers and that catapults him into a vortex of danger. [↩]
- In a distinctly different register, one may also argue that Jerry’s inability to enact phallic sufficiency is evocative of the classic femme fatale of film noir. That is, his transgressions against the dominant gender fictions disturb the way things “ought to be” and trigger a donnybrook (like, for example, Sherry in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing ). [↩]
- Marge’s wielding of the phallus can be said to be non-aggressive as even her corrections of her colleague who misses the important license plate clue are couched in polite, unthreatening terms. [↩]