The horror in this film is not the noir violence that it brings to the bucolic Midwestern setting, but the inability of that violence to leave a mark – the blandness of the setting itself will swallow up any scarlet thread that appears there, and the red will be lost in a vast and unchanging Heart of Whiteness.
* * *
Trying to figure out what a Coen brothers movie is “about” is always a tricky business. The sense of their films often seems to be contained not in the plot, or in any conventionally defined theme, but rather in certain motifs, in repeated images or phrases that accumulate meaning and complexity over the course of the film. It would be perfectly reasonable, for example, to say that Miller’s Crossing is a film about men’s hats, or that The Hudsucker Proxy is about circles and straight lines. In fact, I’d like to begin with a similar claim: the film Fargo is “about” blood on the snow.
That image is repeated in several different ways and contexts throughout the film, so that it is well established by the time we arrive at the climactic wood-chipper scene, with its spray of red gore staining the winter landscape. It’s a powerful image because it is in so many ways a meeting of opposites: red and white, hot and cold, colorful and colorless. We might even be reminded of Sherlock Holmes’s famous formulation in which he imagines crime as a work of art, a “study in scarlet” – “the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life” – which suggests that this opposition between the scarlet and the colorless, the explosive and the everyday, is central to the crime fiction tradition. Blood on the snow, then, is an image that nicely encapsulates the central confrontation that I will be examining here, one that is at the heart of the Coens’ film: the tension that emerges when juxtaposing the sinister and violent plot elements borrowed from film noir with an apparently bland Minnesota setting.
There are several ways of understanding how this tension between noir and Minnesota plays out in Fargo. One could say, for example, that the movie is about the confrontation between an essentially decent American heartland and a threat that comes from the outside, an intrusion of urban noir – in the form of the two hired kidnappers, Carl and Gaear – which disturbs and is then defeated by smalltown Minnesota (in the person of Brainerd Police Chief Marge Gunderson). I suspect that the possibility of reading the film this way is responsible in some part for its popularity.
Or one could argue that the film is really about the return of the repressed, as the violence that lurks perpetually beneath a placid American landscape erupts at last into view. This is certainly what the film would be if David Lynch had directed it – our glimpse into Norm’s bag of writhing nightcrawlers might suggest for Lynch a window into the horrors seething beneath Midwestern America’s polite surface. And readers of the film have often taken some version of this approach. For example, Brian Michael Goss writes that “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.”
But I will be suggesting that neither of these models actually describes Fargo. Indeed, the film actually posits a kind of opposite, perhaps even a rejection, of those models. The frightening thing here is not noir’s intrusion or eruption into Minnesota; it is the way that the calm blandness of Minnesota absorbs and nullifies all of the noir violence and deviance that the film’s plot can muster.
To see this dynamic at work, I want to start by taking a look at a now-iconic scene from late in the film. The faked kidnapping of Jerry Lundegaard’s wife has gone wrong from the start, and the kidnappers Carl and Gaear have left a trail of bodies behind them. Carl has finally succeeded in getting hold of the suitcase full of money – this is a Coen film; of course there is a suitcase full of money – but in the process he has been shot, a grazing blow across the jaw that has been bleeding freely. Now, stopped by the side of the road, he discovers that there is much more money than he had expected in the case, and decides to hide the balance before returning to split the cash with his partner.
The meeting of blood and snow is the organizing logic of the scene. Carl’s face and clothes are bloodstained, and his hands are dyed a ghastly red, too. But the scene emphasizes not Carl’s obtrusiveness but his insignificance, his inability to make a mark on the vast flat whiteness of Minnesota – a point that is made explicit when he looks first in one direction and then the other, encountering a landscape that is unchanging and indistinguishable as far as the eye can see. When he marks the spot where the treasure is buried using the ice scraper – which of course has a bright red handle – the gesture is hilariously, or tragically, pointless. And Carl is killed soon after this, underlining that sense of pointlessness, ensuring that the money will never be found.1 The horror in this film is not the noir violence that it brings to the bucolic Midwestern setting, but the inability of that violence to leave a mark – the blandness of the setting itself will swallow up any scarlet thread that appears there, and the red will be lost in a vast and unchanging Heart of Whiteness.
That whiteness dominates the screen throughout, in the film’s many scenes that emphasize the flatness, coldness, and monotony of the landscape. In the opening, for example, a car moves though a whited-out world, a snowy scene in which no distinction can be made between sky and land. The scene also introduces Carter Burwell’s pounding, dramatic score – one that is clearly out of proportion to the images it accompanies, and out of place in the fake true-crime story that follows, which the Coens film in an unusually low-key, naturalistic style. The effect of this mismatch between film and music is to give the opening a mock-epic quality. There is no true pathos here, but the sequence does seem to suggest that this will be a story in which small and (to borrow a word from another Coen film) overmatched human characters – like the car’s unseen driver – struggle against an unforgiving natural world.
But if that is indeed the story of the film, it is surprising that the driver of the car turns out to be Jerry, the unlikable character whose greed and incompetence are the cause of the many disastrous events of the film. Indeed, with a little bit of effort, either Jerry or Carl could be seen as a protagonist of the film, in the sense that they are the ones who struggle against, and are oppressed by, the Minnesota setting. Consider, for example, the scene in which Jerry’s frustration takes the form of an impotent flailing as he attempts to scrape the ice from his windshield. Or the urban motormouth Carl’s exasperation with his silent Nordic companion Gaear, who is as impassive and unreadable as the landscape.
However, both of them are problematic candidates for protagonist of Fargo, since both are generally unpleasant and both, either directly or indirectly, cause several murders of innocents and others. Much more likely, one would think, is Marge Gunderson, the pleasant, competent, and pregnant police chief who investigates and solves the case. In an interview with Ethan Coen, NPR’s Terry Gross said, “One of the things I really liked about this film is that . . . Marge, the police chief . . . is actually a very good cop with a very big heart, and very likable.” Coen then clearly flummoxed Gross by responding, perversely: “Well, it’s funny you say that. A lot of people liked her, and I’m sure that’s why the movie did well. I always thought she was the bad guy. . . . I just related to Steve Buscemi’s character [Carl] more. He seemed like the classic sane person in an insane land. Marge . . . definitely is sort of embodying the insane land.”
Now, we should certainly be careful about taking the Coen brothers’ statements about their films as authoritative – not just because we should always be careful about any author’s statements, but because the Coens in particular tend to treat interviews and other public forums as occasions to extend their fictional texts through play, facetiousness, and outright lying. Nonetheless, it is at least worth considering the proposition that the “insane world” of Fargo – which is also, in some sense, the world in which the Coens grew up – is represented not just in the blank and snowy landscapes, but also in the blankness of the characters who are aligned with that world, and in the interior, commercial landscapes that those characters inhabit: the hotels and car dealerships and restaurants. Consider, for example, this sequence, in which Marge and her husband Norm are having a bite to eat:
Joel Coen once described Minnesota as “Siberia with family restaurants,” suggesting that both interior and exterior spaces play a role in defining the place. And the family restaurant in this scene seems both representative of the kinds of interiors Marge tends to inhabit, and also defined by the same bland uniformity as the flat, white outdoors. The colors – of the restaurant, the patrons, and the food as well – are a muted palette of tans and browns; the atmosphere is subdued; the dialogue is flat and banal; and the sequence is scored with a muzak version of “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” Muzak is, of course, a cultural production that is so bland and inoffensive that it is often perceived as suffocating and horrific, and the choice of song interjects a mild cry for help into the scene – remember that snowbound Minnesotans may dream of California in the same way that soggy Britons dream of Italy.
This restaurant and the other interior spaces that characters inhabit in Fargo are, on the whole, quite different from the ones that define the atmosphere of film noir. As the critic Vivian Sobchack has pointed out, noir plots tend to play out in “boardinghouse rooms and motels, in diners, in bars . . . seedy cocktail lounges and nightclubs . . . rented social space rather than coherently generated places of social communion” (146). The characteristic spaces of noir, in other words, are both seedy and potentially romanticized. They are commercial spaces whose business is failing or criminal, transient or socially marginal, and therefore places that contain the promise of danger, deviance, excitement: places where anything might happen.
But the commercial spaces of Fargo are not like this at all. They are bland, stable, franchised. Even the exceptions to this rule are often compromised in some fatal way by the insidious creep of “Minnesota nice.” The sketchy bar in Fargo where Jerry first meets with Carl and Gaear is named The Blue Ox, a reference to the squeaky-clean tall tales about Paul Bunyan. When Marge goes to a bar to interview two prostitutes who were hired by the criminals, she finds not hardened and fallen women, but a couple of polite, effusive, blonde girls with the same disarmingly broad Minnesota accents as all the other characters. Carl and Gaear seem to occupy a darker world than the decent folk of the movie, but they too are associated with conventional and mainstream spaces: a “pancakes house,” or an upscale nightspot where Jose Feliciano is playing. And at the end of the day, all of the characters in the film are linked by the time they spend watching television.
In its blandness and blankness, Minnesota operates in the film both as a distinct region and also as a stand-in for a larger American blandness and blankness. This investigation of the national countryside has many antecedents in film noir. Although noir is often described as a film mode whose determinate setting is the big city, in fact the films themselves are frequently devoted to elaborating the problematic relationship between the city and the country. So it is not surprising that Fargo, like several other Coen films, places noir in a setting that is reminiscent of the Western genre, with its flat, open, forbidding natural landscape. This merging of noir plot and Western setting to create a rural noir, or “film blanc,” is a common strategy in post-1980 cinema. Most often, films that employ this strategy do so in order to discover some lurking wrong or dark secret located in American history or society, a secret that dispels the myth of the pure rural heartland, untouched by the ostensible corruptions of the city.
But in Fargo, the Coens bypass this mode of critique, and instead call into question the bases on which it rests. Not only do they cast doubt on the idea that noir can be the vehicle for unearthing America’s dark heart; they suggest that the thrilling outlaw ethos of noir is in fact no match for the polite face of the American heartland. As in all their films, they appear to be skeptical here about the possibility of a noir-style absolutism, an inversion or reversal of American values. Instead, their strategy is to interrogate the logic of the discussion, to call into question what we think we know about America in order, presumably, to make some sort of rethinking possible.
At the film’s end, Gaear, the mute and murderous embodiment of violent crime, rides in the back of the police car while Marge, a character so essentially upright that she cannot understand what she has been witness to, lectures him on the absurdity of what has been done: “There’s more to life than a little money, ya know.” She’s right, of course, but is it possible not to feel that Marge has missed something – that she will always be missing something? And if we align ourselves with her, are we missing something, too? The Coens leave us there, with a film that is in the tradition of noir’s investigation of rural America, but that ultimately suggests a crucial reversal of the terms of that investigation. Noir is not a “dark mirror” of American prosperity and promise; it is the dream of deviance that is lost and buried in the enveloping blankness of the national landscape.
“Filmmaker Ethan Coen (Terry Gross: 2000).” In Allen, William Rodney. The Coen Brothers: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006: 142-48.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. A Study in Scarlet. 1887. New York: Penguin, 2001. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/244/244-h/244-h.htm
Goss, Brian Michael. “‘Film Blanc’: Shoveling Toward the Meaning of Fargo.” Bright Lights Film Journal. July 31, 2012. https://brightlightsfilm.com/film-blanc-shoveling-toward-the-meaning-of-fargo-1996/
Sobchack, Vivian. “Lounge Time: Postwar Crises and the Chronotope of Film Noir.” In Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, ed. Nick Browne, 129-70. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
- This has not stopped other texts inspired by Fargo from going out to look for it. In the film Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014), an urban legend comes to life when a Japanese woman who has found a VHS copy of the Coen film travels to Minnesota to hunt for the hidden cache of money. And in season one of the Fargo TV series, one of the characters happens upon the scarlet ice scraper and digs up the buried briefcase. [↩]