Some films polarise critical opinion over whether or not they posses a moral centre. Fargo by Joel and Ethan Coen is one of the most intriguing cases of this tendency. Whatever way you slice it up, it's a terrific film. But it certainly has been sliced up by reviewers and commentators in some extremely different ways.
As always in our media public sphere, with its frenzy for hyperbolic rhetoric, Fargo has tended to be portrayed in two, warring ways. Either Fargo is a extremely human, tender film; or its an ugly, inhuman one. Uncharitable critics have pointed to this or that black, violent, grimly humorous moment in the film as certain evidence that the Coens are really, underneath it all, heartless bastards; and that all the soft, whimsical stuff in the movie is just a clever ruse to put us off this bad scent.
I feel, on the contrary, that it's somewhere right smack in the middle of being humanist or anti-humanist (inhumanist?). Even more than that, I think the film is a very careful meditation on what moral position can be meaningfully, intelligently taken, in this mad, apocalyptic world of ours.
Fargo is a movie that I didn't exactly love when I first saw it, but it has definitely grown on me. The surface perfection of the Coen brothers' movies often causes suspicion on the part of film critics and viewers. Is there something too precise, too mechanical, perhaps a little contrived and unfeeling in their best work, from Blood Simple (1984) to Barton Fink (1991)? Some excess of grand cinematic spectacle that is at the expense of people and characters and true human emotions?
The true emotional tenor of Fargo needs a delicate and careful response – not the usual, hasty, damn-it-or-worship-it reflex. But let's not dispense too quickly with that surface perfection I just mentioned. From its first abstract, snow-clogged image to its disquieting coda, Fargo is a superbly shaped and controlled movie. The Coen brothers have an all-American knack which hasn't been so evident in narrative cinema since the era of Howard Hawks: the keen ability to very deftly weave the various levels of story, atmosphere, character and theme so that all of them advance together, in the same, precise screen moments.
Fargo is a based on a true incident – one that becomes hyperbolically hilarious and shocking as it unfolds. Jerry (William Macy), is a pathetic Everyman. He's in a financial jam of his own shady making, and so he contrives for his wife to be kidnapped so that her father Wade (Harve Presnell) will pay the ransom. Step by step, this tawdry scheme unravels. The kidnappers (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) make gruesome mistakes. The father is a cantankerous old grouch who won't play ball. And Jerry starts going to pieces when probed by local cop Marge – a plucky, folksy character played by Frances McDormand, very smart, and also extremely pregnant.
On one level, this is an extremely intricate comedy of manners about ordinary Americans and their world – an alternately affectionate and mocking deep-dish portrait recalling the Coens' earlier Raising Arizona (1987). Set in the filmmakers' own formative stomping ground of Minnesota, Fargo is awash with hysterically funny details of everyday speech and behaviour, performed with just the right degree of exaggerated stylisation by a marvellous cast. My own small doubt about the film is that sometimes this comedy of manners aspect is just a little too stretched out and repetitive, to the point where it gets a bit grating and (certainly for some viewers) smarmy and superior.
Beyond the intrinsic intrigue of the story and this rich vein of local detail, what is Fargo really about? Some may be tempted to answer: nothing much. With its chilling but by now rather familiar dose of brutal violence, its investigative plot structure, and its fun with the quotidian freakishness of kitsch Americana, the film can seem rather derivative. But it's not simply derivative, and it's a lot more than brittle, smarmy or superior.
There's more to Fargo than what's most obvious about it. My brain really started ticking over on this film when I stumbled across an illuminating remark in its promotional press kit – and press kits are not generally full of illuminating remarks. It was a comment from the lead actor William Macy, who says: "To me, Fargo is a perfect example of the dictionary definition of the grotesque. It's at once beautiful and hideous at the same time". So, prompted by Macy's insight, I started thinking about the grotesque in cinema, or what might called an aesthetic of the grotesque.
‘90s cinema has seen a resurgence of the grotesque. It expresses itself in an often vicious strain of outlandish caricature and black comedy. I'm thinking of films such as The Young Poisoner's Handbook (1995), which was not terribly good, and the better Heavenly Creatures (1994). What is absolutely crucial to the grotesque is an intense degree of stylisation – eyes pop, mouths gawk, and the camera often adopts a skewed, wide-angle-lens perspective. Grotesque films tend to have a certain hard-driven, assertive, exhibitionistic energy, but not the exhilaration or euphoria that goes with, say, Scorsese's type of high-energy pyrotechnics. There's something a little more grim in the style of grotesque movies.
These days in popular culture, grotesque art has diversified. There's a kind of lightly grotesque patter that you get in The Simpsons. At its most flippant, Fargo reminds me quite often the merry, scattershot grotesqueries of that TV show – Jerry could almost be a live-action version of a few of its animated characters. But the Coens' more profound debt is to filmdom's father of the grotesque: Stanley Kubrick. And with Kubrick, we reach that version of the grotesque which usually attracts descriptions like nihilistic, despairing, misanthropic, even inhuman.
As any Kubrick devotee will know, he's a director who often explored his interest in a behaviourist vision of the human being as some kind of base animal: instinctually driven, rather than rational, intellectual, ethical or moral. Instincts – erotic instincts, violent instincts, bodily corruption and death – often come over as the essential, primal realities in Kubrick's work. And a computer – the famous HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – can come over as more eccentrically human and fallible than any bland human being.
To be a little more precise, human behaviour is really a rather obscure mystery in Kubrick's films. His characters are not exactly animals whose every act is pre-programmed in their genes. But their psychological centre is very mysterious, confused and short-circuited: they behave partly from impulse, partly from social conditioning, partly from habit and routine, partly from a blank alienation, and partly from a slow-burning insanity. That's as true of Humbert Humbert (James Mason) in Kubrick's marvellous film of Lolita (1962), as it is of the deranged soldiers who wildly kill others or kill themselves in Full Metal Jacket (1987), soldiers who shuffle off this mortal coil with cheery epiphanies like: "I'm living in a world of shit". The chilling thriller Seven (1995) picked up this particular aspect of Kubrick's dark, grotesque legacy with particular intensity.
To describe Kubrick or the Coens as filmmakers of the grotesque is not to automatically damn them. It is instructive to look over the way some key critics have assessed the grotesque element in Kubrick's work down the past few decades. One of the most strident anti-Kubrick missiles was launched by Robin Wood in the early ‘70s, and published in Richard Roud's anthology Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (Secker & Warburg, 1980). About A Clockwork Orange (1971), Wood wrote: "[the film] seems to say, 'Humanity is debased and disgusting, but look at this for a piece of film-making'. In fact, a film made exclusively out of hatred and contempt can only be hateful and contemptible, and A Clockwork Orange seems to me probably the ugliest film I have ever seen.” Now, there's a critic who went looking for a moral centre in Kubrick's work, and didn't find it.
But other commentators have embraced the grotesque aspects of Kubrick's films. A number of enthusiastic French critics, including Thierry Cazals (in his essay "L'Homme-Labyrinthe", Cahiers du cinéma, no. 401, November 1987), praise Kubrick for giving us the spectacle of the man as machine, as black hole, as labyrinth or enigma. And the American critic Dana Polan, in an especially interesting piece ("Jack and Gilles", Art & Text, no. 34, Spring 1989), once suggested that Kubrick's films propose a vision of the human being reduced to a mere bodily organism, "little more than blood and globs of gunky material". Polan describes this as a "cynical anti-humanism" – but he means that as a high compliment. Because there a lot of people in this world who have had a gutful of sickly sweet humanism, New Age positivity and strenuous optimism at all times on all counts – and for them, the grotesque sensibility is a kind of bracing tonic, something that helps them to resist the worst illusions and traps of humanism. You could say that the grotesque mind starts from a certain world-weary disenchantment, rather than having to arrive at that disenchantment after humanism cracks up and fails everybody.
Speaking personally, I'll avow that a taste for the grotesque is definitely part and parcel of my own resistance to this moral-centre business in film reviewing. I think we should all be open to the force of nihilism, misanthropy, cynicism and black humour in popular art. I wouldn't want all popular culture to go the way of the grotesque, but by the same token I certainly wouldn't want all movies to be Babe (1995) or Shine (1996) either. But the force of the grotesque is that it does take us to the brink of some unpalatable truths – and it makes us face squarely that sometimes blank, inhuman, amoral aspect of human, social life.
Where does Fargo fit in to this rather bleak, anti-humanist picture? After all, it is a comedy. And it's also – as everyone who likes it says – an extremely touching and tender film. But, although the world and the characters of this film are given to us in a breezy, funny and very winning manner, Fargo does link up with a Kubrick-style vision of the grotesque. It seems to me that everyone in Fargo, whether prattling or pregnant, exists in an almost purely instinctual state – and they are all some type of base idiot.
It's only a small, fatal step from the lightly grotesque to the fully nihilistic. This is a step that the Coens understand extremely well, and they actually dramatise it, making it the deepest subject of their film. The silent killer here is a monstrous figure for whom human life, human interaction of any sort, means absolutely nothing. He kills as easily as he breathes, and if he talked more, he would probably throw off aphorisms like, "I'm living in a world of shit". This monster is a bit like the incarnation of Wood's idea of Kubrick. But I don't think this character's particular brand of ugly nihilism should, in this case, be taken as the viewpoint of the filmmakers.
Here again, a comparison with Seven is instructive. That movie depicted a medieval-style struggle between good and evil, in which a precarious social order had to be snatched from the jaws of encroaching barbarism. Fargo is also about the fragility of civilisation, the fragility of law and order or simply a tranquil social equilibrium. But, being a less thunderously Gothic film than Seven, Fargo views this perennial battle between peace and chaos in personal rather than abstract terms.
There is, unquestionably, a pronounced anti-humanist slant to the films of the Coen brothers. They filter out from their purview most sentimental or romantic illusions. The behaviour of their characters is often matter-of-factly stupid, banal, exploitative and amoral – not to mention, violent and murderous. Yet these people are still, for all that, fully human; they work, dag about and survive all manner of tiny and seismic crises. They manage to collectively construct a community, every step by difficult step. Civilisation is for the Coens a bit like what marriage was for Raymond Chandler: like a newspaper, it has to be taken apart and built up again every damn day. To maintain a community is hard work. And it's even harder to maintain it in full knowledge of that murderous, blank, nihilistic evil constantly lurking in the shadows. That's the poignant miracle which Fargo shows – a miracle that results from the patient, daily struggle of ordinary, grotesque people.
© Adrian Martin August 1996