Fargo (1996): Speaking of Crime

Fargo is a depiction of what are, very possibly, some of the most incompetent, and inarticulate, criminals to ever appear in a movie. Often called Minnesota Noir, some people also like to refer to the movie as Neo Blanc, because of its overwhelming whiteness, which is not necessarily a reference to it’s cast, but the snowy environment in which it’s set.

But this description, might indeed, refer to its primary characters.  Jerry Lundegaard’s motivations aren’t from  some dark cynicism of the soul, or  sexual misbehavior. The motivation behind his crimes, and what sets the entire plot in motion, is simple human greed. In fact, his crime is so blandly unexciting, it’s barely alluded to in the script. All we know is that it has something to do with money he borrowed on non-existent cars at the dealership where he works. Why he felt the need, to borrow the money in the first place, is never said. Its probably borrowing all the way down.

Jerry Lundegaard is by all senses of the word a “milktoast”. This is a man who has never  committed to a life of criminal activity, and has simply gotten in over his head. He’s  never studied crime beyond watching  television dramas. Having committed no more than the most petty of deceptions, he decides, at some point, to become more ambitious and engage in embezzlement, extortion, and  kidnapping. Which is a mistake, because planning a kidnapping, to steal the ransom money, requires a level of skill that Jerry is entirely lacking. The man isn’t even a  good liar, which one has to admit, is one of the hallmark qualities of a professional shyster.

In one of the earliest scenes, we see Jerry  being shamed for lying about the cost of one of his vehicles.  If he were any good, the lie would never have been caught. He seems to lie and deceive just as a matter of course, even when there’s no need for it. Jerry fits an almost classic narcissistic profile. He thinks far too highly of his own abilities, has grandiose plans for the future, that he can’t live up to, and thinks pretty much only about himself. For example, he has given not a single thought to how his plans will affect his son Scotty, or how terrified his wife might be, at being kidnapped. Given the chance to comfort his son, he gives the boy lame assurances, that his mother will be alright, and not to tell anyone about it.

There’s a feminist saying:  “Lord, grant me the confidence of a mediocre White man.” And Jerry is about as mediocre as a man can get, fitting the very definition of nondescript. He has accomplished so little in life that few people respect him.  His son, and clients, disregard his opinions, his father-in-law expresses nothing but disdain for him, and bullies him, and he works at the dealership that his father-in- law owns. In fact, its implied that since his wife comes from money, nothing in Jerry’s universe might really belong to him, and that everything he owns, is due to his father-in-law’s aid,  or permission.

Jerry isn’t smooth, slick, or even especially bright. He is by any measure of manhood, mostly forgettable, and paradoxically, as played by William H. Macy, unforgettable, with his odd verbal ticks, and air of silent desperation.  What’s troubling is that this wild eyed desperation doesn’t seem like it can be attributable to his immediate situation. This is a man who looks as if he has always been cringing, in anticipation of a blow that never comes, his entire life.

On the surface, his plan seems simple enough. Have his wife kidnapped, ask his father in law for the money, split the take with his associates, and make off with the dough. But Jerry is entirely unreliable. He lies to his partners in crime, he lies to his father in law about everything, he lies to his son, and forces his son to lie to their relatives. He naturally lies to the poilice, but Jerry isn’t even skilled enough to choose competent partners to carry out his task.

People pay much attention, to the accents of the characters, here.  Yes, the accents do sound pretty funny, but the Coen Brothers are also doing something else with  speech in this film, and the accents are distracting.

The  key  theme throughout the movie is the idea that lying and deception, either renders people less articulate, or is a marker of criminal aspirations, and social status, and that honest forthrightness makes one especially gullible.  One of the more overlooked aspects of the dialogue is those who are more honest, or certain of their positions (whether  in society, or ethically) are the ones most able to clearly express themselves, but they also tend to think of everyone else as being as honest as them. They take what others say at face value.

Marge Gunderson, is  the most intelligent person in the movie,  and is  honest and forthright. She is also,as a representative of law and order, the most socio-economically secure, deeply ensconced in the middle class. She also happens to be the most well-spoken, never experiencing an inability to say what she means, and seemingly very sure of herself. On the other hand, this honesty means she can also be easily lied to, as Jerry, who is not innately skilled at lying, manages to  get the drop on her, twice.

Jerry is also capable of successfully lying to his father in law, another righteous, and honest fellow, who speaks from his deep well of financial security.  Jerry isn’t particularly skilled at lying. It’s just  the people he’s lying to, never suspect it, because he appears to be a member of their socio-economic status, and, like Marge, appears to be firmly enmeshed in the status quo.

Note that Jerry is not successful at lying to people on society’s fringes, like Carl,  Gaear and Shep. Although, they don’t call him out on it, they know when he’s doing it.

Marge, unlike Jerry, is actually considerate and charming. She thinks as much of others feelings, as Jerry only pretends to do. After she chides her deputy for getting his police work wrong, she is careful to assuage his embarrassment, by telling him  jokes. When she meets an old friend for lunch, Mike Yamagita,  he makes an attempt to invade her personal space, and she rebuffs him, but also remembers to let him “save face”, by asserting that its easier to talk to him, if he sits across from her, rather than next to her. This is a minor dishonesty, but Mike, a magnificent liar himself, knows she is doing so. He tells her various stories about his own life, which Marge just accepts. After all, he appears to be a member of her law abiding social circle.

Mike Yamagita is inarticulate in a different way then the other unethical people in the movie, probably because he is a member of her social class, and is college educated. He’s trying to impress Marge, and win her sympathy, as he has a crush on her. He is nervous and  painfully  awkward, often talking too fast, or too loud. He’s not a criminal, but he is unreliable, which is slightly further up the spectrum of unethical behavior than Carl, or Jerry.  Mike doesn’t live in the world of crime, like Carl and Jerry. Like Wade, he lives  in a comfortable middle class, but skirts carefully close to its edges, and his manner of speaking illustrates this.

Contrast Marge with Jerry, when he’s lying to his father-in-law, about his wife’s kidnapping. He has to rehearse what he’s going to say, to find the right tone. Later, at the diner, when he’s arguing with Wade, about whether the police should be called, he stutters, pauses, and  searches for what words to use, all while trying to sound as if he knows what he’s doing.  Wade Gustafson has all of the confidence that Jerry  lacks, until  after he bullies  Jerry into delivering  the ransom demand himself. Then he has to rehearse how tough he wants to sound to the kidnapper, echoing Jerry’s rehearsal scene earlier in the film.

The closer Wade gets to the outer fringes of “normal” society, with all its smiles and courtesy, the less articulate he becomes. (He has already lost his  courtesy in the diner.) When he finally confronts Carl with the ransom money, he speaks in flat declarative, non- sentences. “No Jean. No money!” Apparently, he sounds just a bit too tough, because he receives several bullets for his trouble. In his death throes, he loses his words altogether, and can do nothing but groan in pain. Wade, who is generally  forthright and confident of his position in the world,  is also easily deceived by Jerry.

All of the criminals in this movie are distinctly and  individually inarticulate. Carl Showalter, as played by Steve Buscemi, like Jerry, often loses  track of what he means to say, or searches for the right word. Unique to his character is his inability to pronounce words he thinks he knows, as when he tries to use the word carcinogen, to chide his partner, for smoking in the car. Carl often tries to sound more erudite than he is,  attempting to  get Jerry to accept him as part of a social stratus to which he doesn’t belong. Like Jerry, Carl pretends  at being more socially acceptable than he is, but unlike Jerry, he possesses not an ounce of skill at this, as we witness on his date with an escort, telling her lame double entendres, and asking her if she likes her kind of work. His inability to pronounce certain words is a sign of this lack of breeding.

Carl’s partner, Gaear Grimsrud, played by Peter Stormare, rarely speaks, and when he does, it’s almost entirely in  sentences that can hardly be classified as sentences. He possesses all of the eloquence of a human pitbull. As two men whose position in society is well off the fringe, they are entirely lacking the niceties of behavior, that Jerry pretends to.

    Where is Pancakes Hause?

                           CARL
               What?

                           GRIMSRUD
               We stop at Pancakes Hause.

                           CARL
               What're you, nuts?  We had pancakes 
               for breakfast.  I gotta go somewhere 
               I can get a shot and a beer - and a 
               steak maybe.  Not more fuckin' 
               pancakes.  Come on.

     Grimsrud gives him a sour look.

                           CARL (CONT'D)
               ...  Come on, man.  Okay, here's an 
               idea.  We'll stop outside of Brainerd.  
               I know a place there we can get laid.  
               Wuddya think?

                           GRIMSRUD
               I'm fuckin' hungry now, you know.

There’s also Shep Proudfoot, played by Steve Reevis, who is every bit as inarticulate as Gaear. When Marge goes to interview him for his part in the kidnapping, like Gaear, he barely even uses words, just grunts answers. Later, when beating up Carl in a rage, he just yells in flat declarative sentences. He also has the dubious status of being double marginalized, first  by his race, and then his long criminal background. Both he and Gaear have much in common, as they only seem to have two settings, barely  present mentally, or hideous levels of violence.

The  two young ladies, that Gaear and Carl hook up with at a truckstop, aren’t inarticulate, but  they are distinctly unclear. They are unable to describe what Carl, or Gaear, look like, though presumably, they saw them up close when they were having sex with them. (Its a running joke in the movie that Carl is described as  “funny looking” by all who see him.) As truck-stop prostitutes, they live on the fringes of society,  but they are college educated, which shows in their vocabulary, but their  marginalized social  status is illustrated by the lack of clarity in their speech.

The one exception to this is Marge’s husband Norm. He isn’t very articulate either, but the nature of his silence is very different from Gaear’s and Shep’s. He too, is honest,  forthright, loving, and thoughtful to Marge, remembering to bring her lunch, and making sure she has a hot meal, before going out on a call. But the sense from that is, Norm doesn’t talk because he doesn’t  need to. He’s perfectly capable of expressing his love for Marge in other ways, and as he needs no one but her,  there’s no need to for him to speak to anyone else.

The in-eloquence with which a character speaks, often serves to illustrate where they are on the criminal  and social spectrum, and gives some indication of how competent a criminal they are. Gaear, for example,  is such a vile person, that he  speaks with all the eloquence of a  three year old. Shep Proudfoot, has a long criminal history, and grunts most of his dialogue. This is a deliberate choice by the Coen Brothers,  as we’ve seen that they are capable of creating very erudite, and articulate criminals, in their other films. Hi, from Raising Arizona, for example, whose eloquence is used to humorously offset his criminal background, and Goldthwaite Higgenbottom, the conman from The Ladykillers, who successfully masquerades as a person of higher social status than he actually is.

All that aside, these aren’t very good criminals either, which is a common trope in the Coen Brothers more comedic films. The criminals are often waylaid by events that are  out of their control,  or that they didn’t think all the way through, and their charmlessness also causes some real problems for them.  When Carl and Gaear are stopped by the police, Carl ineptly attempts to bribe the officer. (Marge would probably have charmed the man right out of his uniform.) When Jean Lundegaard, who  is in the trunk, makes noise, Gaear elects to shoot the cop, right there, on the spot. So lacking is he, in the subtleties of human behavior, that he elects, at every opportunity, to go straight to violence, (which is how Carl ends up in the wood chipper at the end of the movie). While moving the cop’s body, two pedestrians spot this from their vehicle, and Gaear decides he has to kill them too. When Carl returns to their cabin to find that Gaear has killed Jean, he says he did it because she was making noise. This is a character who hates the very idea of speech.

Jerry is so inept at his role, that he loses control of his own criminal enterprise to Wade,  who decides he doesn’t want Jerry mucking things up. Wade decides he’s going to deliver the ransom money himself. When he tries to bully Carl, the way he often blusters his way with Jerry, Carl shoots him because, as he’s said previously to Jerry, he’s not gonna debate. This is because, as seen on a couple of occasions, Carl lacks the skill to do that, anyway.

Jerry is so incompetent he can’t even flee the police properly. The first time, Marge accidentally catches him fleeing her interview, when his words fail to convince her to go away. His folksy middle class persona is starting to show cracks. The further out onto the fringes of genteel society Jerry slides, the less convincing his words become, until finally, even his brittle, superficial charm begins to work against him. He fails to convince the police that he’s being cooperative, when they capture him trying to flee through his motel room window, so far has he fallen. At this point, Jerry just gives in to desperate yelling, his  speech having deserted him entirely. This is as low as he can possibly go, and so becomes as incoherent, and inarticulate, as Gaear, and Shep.

And then there’s Marge’s little speech at the end of the movie, her charm still in place, as she naively chides Gaear, for his criminal acts. Her speech doesn’t  actually make any sense, but we are clear on  how she feels about the sordid events, speaking, as she does, from the lofty heights of her social privilege.

At the end of the movie, the status quo has been restored, the bad guys have been captured, and Marge is  the only person involved, who still has words.

 

Oh, and for a great, astute analysis of Jerry Lundegaard,  see:

https://thisruthlessworld.wordpress.com/2014/06/03/what-does-this-movie-mean-the-coen-brothers-fargo-1996/

 

 

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