Matt Fraction posted this on Tumblr yesterday on the subject of Fargo, the 1996 Coen Brothers movie about a kidnapping in Minnesota, and the subsequent investigation by a heavily-pregnant police sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). He (quite rightly, in my opinion) defends the film and the filmmakers from the charges of being ‘arch’ and ‘mocking’. In reaction, here are some thoughts of my own.
(If you haven’t seen Fargo, go see it, because the following piece – like Matt Fraction’s – contains spoilers. And also because it’s a really good film that everyone should see.)
Formally, the film works in the same way as an episode of Columbo, i.e. it is one of those police procedurals in which we, the audience, see every detail of the crime, and know ‘whodunnit’ before the detective, and get to watch the detective figure it out. But whereas Columbo is a classical detective in other respects – he’s near-supernaturally insightful, always one jump ahead – Marge Gunderson is hardly a detective at all. Or rather, she’s a detective in a way that is far more like real life. She’s never one jump ahead. She amasses evidence and she follows it. She doesn’t display any leaps of insight. She doesn’t really deduce anything. There is a famous bit where she corrects another officer’s mistake (the “I’m not sure I agree with you 100% on your police work there Lou” bit) but it isn’t played to emphasize her special abilities. On the contrary, it emphasizes her basic competence over the routine incompetence of one of her colleagues. In other respects, she doesn’t distinguish herself. At first, she makes nothing of Jerry Lundergaard’s attempts to fabricate licence plates, despite being left alone with – and noticing – the pad on which he’s doing it. And why should she? She has no context that would make any reasonable person see it was significant. The usual leap of imagination of the detective is a contrivance. It’s actually the writer feeding insights to the detective at strategic moments in order to make the plot work. She sees the framed photo of Mrs Lundergaard in Jerry’s office and there is no standard cop-eureka moment when, as she stares at the photo, she suddenly puts things together. Why should there be? She doesn’t know Mrs Lundergaard is missing yet. She catches Grimsrud not because she tracks him down but because she happens to drive past his hideout and recognise the ‘tan Ciera’ parked outside.
The film resolutely resists depicting Marge as special in any way. She isn’t particularly clever, insightful, glamorous or charismatic. Indeed, by conventional standards (by which I mean standard conventional depictions, which the movie flouts and undermines) she looks the opposite of all these things. Extraordinarily unextraordinary, she is simply competent at her job, fond of her husband, polite to her colleagues, etc. Moreover, she is vulnerable to the frailties of the flesh in ways that we real people know full well (even if we don’t all know what it’s like to be pregnant) but to which movie people routinely display superhuman indifference. The fact that she’s a cop is quite important here, at least in a tangential way: cops in TV and film routinely show insanely high levels of intuition and physical resilience. (Really, the way our culture constantly tells us absurd boosterish lies about our police and judiciary ought to be a major and ongoing scandal, and would be if we were anywhere near as sceptical of authority as we like to imagine we are.) Marge, by contrast, starts off as an unusual kind of screen detective – a pregnant woman. Nor, by the way, is her pregnancy glamourized. Nor does it fall into another trap in stories featuring pregnant women: the story doesn’t become about the baby or the birth, or about her new role as a mother. She just happens to be pregnant. The baby is not born during the story. Marge is the focus. Not Marge’s uterus, or Marge’s gender roles.
None of this is to denigrate Marge. Indeed, that’s the point. She doesn’t need inspiration, leaps of instinct, deductive genius, remarkable skills. She wins by being steady and competent, by doing her job properly and with good sense. The film insists upon this. It sounds as if the movie is a paean to respectability, to tedium, to obeying rules. This is part of why it’s actually quite a confrontational film. It champions resolutely unglamorous, unexciting virtues which also flirt with being faults such as lack of imagination, conventionality, etc.
Related to all the ways in which Marge is extraordinarily unextraordinary is her moral status. Again, our persistently dishonest culture industries are always peddling cop characters who are presented as moral champions, preternaturally passionate seekers of justice, etc. The reality of the police is, of course, that they’re flawed human beings just like the rest of us, and like the rest of us they are the product of their environments, and their attitudes reflect their position and status in society. What’s interesting is how often the presupposed higher morality of the policeman is unconsciously contrasted with actions which would put them beyond the pale of they didn’t ‘carry a badge’. Police dramas, which are so enamoured of ‘mavericks’ and ‘loose canons’ who ‘buck authority’ and ‘hate penpushers’ etc etc etc, routinely normalise scandalous police misconduct as the product of a passion for justice, a deeply-felt empathy with victims, burn-out as a result of the stress of the job, and so on. Marge, again by contrast, bucks no authority, hates no pen-pushers, doesn’t complain about being hemmed in by the constitution or political correctness. She doesn’t get drunk and have affairs and indulge in compulsive gambling because she’s so broken because of ‘the things cops see’, etc. She doesn’t abuse or mistreat any suspects. She doesn’t do any of that, any more than she displays promethean insight or olympian stamina, or any other superhuman traits. In her quiet way, Marge is almost a complete inversion of a standard cop. Because accompanying her refusal to even countenance any misconduct, she also fails to display any of the ostensible ‘passion’ that gets the ‘mavericks’ into such a froth.
What Marge is, if you want it in one word, is decent. This film is, essentially, about decency. Normal, everyday, routine, natural, banal, human decency… about how catastrophic things become when it is absent. As a result, it’s open to being interpreted as a deeply conservative film. Maybe it even is one. I’m quite happy to love and be moved by a conservative film. I’m not going to let myself be fooled into thinking that my emotional reactions to a story necessarily mean that I’m persuaded by its ideology (blimey, if I thought that I’d never be able to turn on the telly at all). However, I want to ponder this idea a bit.
For a start, for all that Marge is unquestionably if not a subversion then at least an inversion of a great many cop characters in fiction, she is also undoubtedly an extremely positive depiction of the police. More positive a depiction than I think a lot of people know. And you don’t need to have ploughed through Making a Murderer to know not only that there are plenty of hinky cops out there, but also that the entire ‘justice system’ is basically – at least when looked at from one angle – a gigantic machine designed to feed people (mostly poor people) into prisons that are often little more than totalitarian slave labour camps. Some of these people, like Grimsrud in Fargo, are sociopaths who have committed terrible crimes (and I’m undecided on Steven Avery, for the record) but a great many have done little except try to cope (or fail to cope) with life at the bottom of a society that has had its boot on their necks since birth. And, of course, there is not only the injustice of how people are treated within the system, but also the injustice of how many people never get brushed by the system simply by virtue of who they are and how much money they’ve got. These are complexities that Fargo does not touch on. And that’s fine. That’s not what it’s getting at. But we must acknowledge that anything that unproblematically links the police to decency has problems, even if only problems of omission when viewed in a wider political context. You can imagine a conservative of a certain type getting misty-eyed about Marge and Norm Gunderson’s simple decency, about the plucky little Sheriff’s office protecting us all, about small town / middle American values, and all that gubbins.
But the thing is… I don’t think competence, good sense, politeness, etc, are inherently conservative virtues. In fact, if you know anything about the Right, the idea that they have more than their fair share of such things – let alone a monopoly – is patently ludicrous. The Right like to harp on about such things and, in their patronising and hypocritical way, to thus appropriate the presumed values of ‘ordinary people’. This kind of populism is a standard conservative tactic, as is the accompanying tendency to sneer at ‘liberal elites’ who look down on the presumed values of red-state America, or ‘middle England’ for that matter, or whatever. It’s one of the fundamental paradoxes of modern conservative thought: they push the idea of people as essentially selfish and competitive, all pursuing rational self-interest at the expense of everyone else, all striving to maximise marginal utility all over the place… and yet they also want to mythologise the great mass of the population (upon whom, of course, the maintenance and continuance and reproduction of society depends) as folksy heroes possessed of lashings of downhome wisdom, etc
There is a fundamental incoherence in modern conservative discourse… (fuck, what am I saying? – there’s barely any coherence to be found anywhere in any of it!) …to do with the performative and rhetorical lip-service paid to admiration for the values of ‘ordinary people’, which clashes with the basic and foundational assumption of modern conservatism that the natural state of humanity is competition and predation, for man to feed upon man like monsters of the deep. This incoherence is not a problem for them (if they worried about consistency they wouldn’t be who they are), and is an unavoidable product of the tactical syncresis of populism and neoliberalism which is constitutive of modern conservatism… which is itself only the latest form of a paradigm for conservative thought going back centuries, possibly even millenia: the combination of appeals to the fears and self-interests of a moderately privileged layer of society in order to create a sufficient mandate for the protection of the system of privilege itself, and thus protect the people at the very apex of the hierarchy.
This kind of mythologising also depends upon a very skewed idea of what ‘ordinary people’ look like and act like, of course. Gestures aside, the conservative mythology essentially depends upon depicting ordinariness and normalcy as white, middle-class, supernaturally sober, straight, cisgendered, etc. There’s a very good reason for this skewed perspective: these are the people that conservative movements depend on in order to mobilise enough petit-bourgeois ressentimentality to get themselves a power base. These are the people are who are privileged by bourgeois society without actually being members of the ruling class. They benefit from the white-supremacism inherent in Western imperialist culture (which is bourgeois by definition) without actually being part of the class that runs it. They benefit from the private property system to an extent far below that of the capitalist class, but appreciably more than that of the people lower down the pyramid. (In a related way, of course, men benefit from capitalist patriarchy, even as it wounds them in other ways.) All this means they can be motivated to support ruling class ideas and imperatives by threatening them with the encroachment of the people below them, or by speciously soothing their fear of losing a foothold on the middle class and slipping into the proletariat – a fear generated by the very system they are persuaded to uncritically support.
We are often reassured by the media that humankind is essentially competitive. And I don’t think competition and competitiveness are unnatural in any essential or fundamental way. Competition certainly happens, and can be productive. But you’d think that competition was the only or prime way in which we organise life, if you believed the statements – tacit or explicit – of the bourgeois media. The truth is that there is far more co-operation between people than there is competition. Co-operation seems at least as natural to us as competition, which is understating it in my view. Every morsel of food you eat, every path you walk on, every car you drive in, every road you drive on, every street light you pass under… they are all the products of a vast system of human co-operation (though they’re not ‘socialism’, as some will tell you). Looked at dialectically – that is, in terms of ubiquitous internal contradictions, opposites unified instead of simply opposed, everything as a process undergoing change, complex inter-relationships where everything is in a causal and effectual relationship with everything else simultaneously, and feedback loops of causation – we can see that even oppression and exploitation are co-operative. There is no system ever devised by humanity more exploitative or more co-operative than capitalism. Even direct state oppression is co-operative, in the sense that it requires a huge number of people more-or-less harmoniously working in tandem to make it work, and also a degree of willingness on the part of the victims to permit the oppression.
There’s even a sense in which crime can be co-operative. There’s a wonderful (horrible, chilling) sequence in Fargo where Mrs Lundergaard is sat in her living room and one of her kidnappers walks up to the patio doors in full view of her and starts trying to get in. She stares in faint bemusement but does not move… until he smashes the glass with a tire iron. There is something so intensely realistic about this to me. People are so used to things being normal (I mean, of course they are – that’s what normal means) that they (by which I mean me too) are very reluctant to accept or comprehend it when things suddenly aren’t. And this is normally a perfectly reasonable response… because normally things are normal. Normally. Mrs Lundergaard isn’t stupid for not instantly assuming that she’s about to be kidnapped. On the contrary, 99 times out of a hundred she’d be right to be circumspect. Crime is pretty rare, relatively speaking. The smashing of the tire iron through the glass is the smashing of the abnormal into her world. She is unable to cope with it. The scene where she tries to hide and gets captured has been interpreted as ‘black comedy’… and it is, though it is resolutely not at her expense. It is actually at the expense of the men who are hurting her. They are the abnormal ones here, their actions the crazy aberration. Her response is inadequate because, quite reasonably, she never prepared herself for an eventuality she never realistically expected to face. Even so, there’s a sense in which – without blaming her at all – she co-operated with her captors. Confusion, disbelief, and then terror, paralyse her and bring her to allow herself to be killed. Even so, there’s never a sense that the film is mocking or criticising her for not being up to a task that nobody should have to deal with.
This reasonable but deadly paralysis in response to the shattering of the normal, and the revelation of the dark pit of horror behind the normal, is key to the film I think. And it’s also key to why I don’t think we can see Fargo as a conservative film in any simple way, even if there are issues with it (such as the race dynamics, most obviously). There’s nothing inherently non-conservative about the idea that the normal world is a thin veneer of civilisation beneath which there seethes a morass of incomprehensible and meaningless and nihilistic evil. I mean… that’s practically a definition of the fundamental worldview of at least one brand of conservatism. There’s certainly nothing inherently non-conservative about the idea of unknown ‘funny lookin’ men of low social status, and low educational level, proving to be a potentially deadly threat to decent, homely, ordinary, middle-class, white people in middle America. But there’s a bait and switch going on here… because the ‘mastermind’ behind the entire plan is Jerry Lundergaard, the definition of whitebread. He’s the guy who needs to score some money because he’s desperate to succeed at being a white man in Whitemanlandia. He wants to cover up his financial scams, which are obviously a product of his desire to live up to expectations he has of himself… expectations he sees mirrored in his objectionable, crude, arrogant, greedy bully of a father-in-law Wade. Milquetoast Jerry obviously secretly idolises Wade (the big man with the bulging pockets who effortlessly imposes his will on people) in inverse proportion to his feelings of inferiority to the man. He almost certainly married Wade’s daughter in order to get at Wade and/or Wade’s money. He thus hires Showalter and Grimsrud to kidnap his wife in order to pocket the ransom money he’ll get from Wade. Jerry, in short, despite being every bit as much the epitome of decent, homely, ordinary, middle-class, white middle America as his wife, is also a thoroughly contemptible piece of shit. Moreover, he’s not very good at being a thoroughly contemptible piece of shit. Like Marge, the criminals in this story are inversions of more usual portrayals: far from being impressively or glamorously sinister, they’re shambolic and idiotic… which is far more in keeping with the reality of such people, most conspiratorial crime being grubby and squalid and almost laughably amateurish. Jerry, for all his sweating and fretting, is every bit as much a moral vacuum as the terrifying Grimsrud. He’s every bit as much an echoing pit of self-involvement. He’s just learned how to hide it (at least vaguely). Grimsrud’s blank stare is the real face under Jerry’s facsimile chuckles and simulated smiles. There is no sense in which Grimsrud is alien to Brainerd, home of Jerry Lundergaard. At least, he’s no more alien than Jerry is.
The other key moment in the film is, of course, Marge’s rejection of the advances of Mike Yanagita. She kindly, politely, firmly, tells Mike not to sit next to her. Mike, for all his crying over his ostensibly dead wife, turns out to not be really married. Indeed, the woman he claimed to be mourning is not only not his wife but also not even dead. Mike, it transpires, was stalking her… and probably thinking about transferring his attentions to Marge, using his fake tale of woe to grease the wheels. This scene is significant not only because learning of his duplicity seems to jog Marge’s thought processes (what with Mike being so reminiscent of the smiling hypocrite Lundergaard) but also because Mike’s attempt to sit next to Marge is her tire iron moment. Or rather, it’s the moment just before the tire iron smashes the glass, and she stops it. For Mrs Lundergaard, embedded (through no fault of her own) in a nest of utterly selfish men who place her far lower on their list of priorities than their own egos, normal is skewed. This isn’t a literal point of character psychology, but of her placement in the narrative. Marge, by contrast, exists in a world where that kind of thing is unthinkable. Norm gets up to make her eggs when she has to go out early on call. He isn’t the best artist in the competition, but his mallard is good enough to get on the 3¢ stamp, which – as Marge points out – is a useful stamp even if it’s not the most popular. It’s one of those minor stamps that nevertheless makes things work.
The film is set up to ironically hammer home a juxtaposition-that-isn’t-really-a-juxtaposition: crime vs. ‘Minnesota nice’. Ostensibly it works aesthetically by showing us the inexplicable alien evil crashing into Normalsville, USA. But actually, of course, the inexplicable alien evil was there all along. But – crucially – it’s still an aberration. Because the film isn’t making grand structural pronouncements about the inner nature of Western culture. It’s talking about normality and decency as something we make, from day to day. Ultimately, Mike’s attempt at a shifty seduction-by-stealth is actually just as ‘normal’ as the tire iron smashing the window is for Showalter and Grimsrud… and they’re both just as normal as Norm’s paintings and Marge’s cravings and cramps. Normal is just what you’re used to. And you can get used to anything. And you can do anything. Contrasting with conservative fantasies, ordinary decency here isn’t some reified and innate property of noble little folk. Normal decency, rather, is something people make. It’s something they produce, day to day. And you can tell because there are exceptions which prove the rule. In its incoherent and totalising way, conservatism seizes on the exceptions too, and uses them as a paradigm, drawing the conclusion that we’re all depraved darwinians under the surface. Conservatism can’t make its mind up because it fundamentally forgets agency and contingency, and social embeddedness.
Fargo is about how basic, normal decency keeps the world functioning – for good or ill. But it doesn’t forget that this is something people do, not something they are. Without wanting to sound misty-eyed myself, there is a real sense in which the vast majority of people rub along pretty well most of the time, getting stuff done that needs doing, managing the day-to-day affairs of society, coping with each others’ foibles and failings, having a laugh, etc. Society couldn’t exist without this basic level of competence and co-operation, without the vast majority of us not behaving like mindless brutes or ravening monsters. That’s what Marge means when she tells Grimsrud:
So that was Mrs. Lundergaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day…
January 28, 2016 @ 3:44 pm
Would I be outing myself as a casual if I called this my favorite Jack article? Regardless, I’m saying it. Some lovely insights here, esp. “normalcy”
January 28, 2016 @ 3:55 pm
This feels like an extended version of 15 (which is my favorite thing by Jack), so it could go either way.
Still, I’d be interested in seeing how he reacts to the TV show, which I think would be an interesting read, especially considering the most recent season and how it deals with Regan.
January 28, 2016 @ 4:23 pm
Which one is ’15’ again?
Oh yeah, the ‘Gridlock’ one. Thanks. When people mention their favourite from The 50 it’s usually the one Phil wrote.
January 28, 2016 @ 10:41 pm
To be fair, it’s also usually me mentioning it.
January 28, 2016 @ 5:46 pm
I suspect that the series of expressions my face went through as I first realised who was on screen, and who they were playing would have been bloody hilarious to anyone watching.
An inspired (or possibly mad) choice of casting.
(I hope that’s vague enough not to be a spoiler)
I watched series one of Fargo before I saw the film, and now I think I like the first TV series slightly more, if only because it’s length gives it a bit more time for the plot to progress. We should be finishing series two this evening.
January 28, 2016 @ 5:56 pm
I’m with the aye-sayers! Sometimes I feel like you’re taking the half-formed thoughts from my head, articulating them better than I ever would then taking them for a lap of honour. The “little bit of money” speech, I’ve always thought of that as the heart of the film. But “normal decency, rather, is something people make. It’s something they produce, day to day” – that nails it.
Like Sean, though, I’m wondering if you’ve ever seen the spin-off TV show. To my mind that did take things more in the ‘arch’ direction…
January 28, 2016 @ 6:21 pm
I’ve only seen the first season, but I felt that the shift in tone there was basically a matter of upping the bleakness (it’s pretty much “Fargo meets No Country For Old Men“) and adding a cynical nastiness that the film doesn’t have – specifically, the story’s treatment of Oliver Platt’s character just seemed nakedly malicious.
January 28, 2016 @ 6:25 pm
I saw S1 and, though I liked it on the whole, I agree that its tone is markedly different to that of the film. Everything in the film is just unlikely enough to be true, whereas the TV show is a pretty standard shaggy dog story decorated in some of the aesthetic trappings of the movie.
Megara Justice Machine
January 28, 2016 @ 4:17 pm
I’ve always felt Marge’s pregnancy was thematically important, contrasting the life-taking the others were doing. Their way way just screwing up lives ad taking them while she was creating it, nurturing it.
Great write up.
January 28, 2016 @ 7:21 pm
contrasting the life-taking the others were doing.
Also, as a contrast to other portrayals of cops in media. If you are generous, your average tv cop might be someone you want to solve whatever “imaginary” case the show/film/whatever presents. How few of them would be someone you would want to be the cop pulling you over if you were speeding, or someone you would want as your neighbor, or someone you would want as your mother. So many media cops are monsters outside of the context of the particular story, whereas Marge is literally carrying that outside context with her every where she goes and with every thing she does.
January 29, 2016 @ 5:57 pm
Yes, I think so. Films normally portray being a cop as some kind of calling, akin to being a monk. They’re a breed apart. Whereas not only can you imagine Marge doing another job, she’d even have done it in a similar sort of way, setting out a process then following it diligently until it got to clocking-off time. She could have done Jerry’s job. In fact she’d have done it better than Jerry. Which might have saved a whole bunch of people a whole bunch of time and trouble.
January 28, 2016 @ 10:42 pm
Random fact, the murder upon which Fargo is based was originally committed in Newtown, and was, for years, the act of violence we were best known for.
January 29, 2016 @ 5:58 pm
Yes I think so. Films normally portray being a cop as some kind of calling, akin to being a monk. They’re a breed apart. Whereas not only can you imagine Marge doing another job, she’d even have done it in a similar sort of way, setting out a process then following it diligently until it got to clocking-off time. She could have done Jerry’s job. In fact she’d have done it better than Jerry. Which might have saved a whole bunch of people a whole bunch of time and trouble.
January 29, 2016 @ 5:59 pm
Sorry for the stereo effect. Seems even new Captchas have their quirks.
January 30, 2016 @ 2:31 am
Fantastic essay capturing much of what I love about one of my favorite movies. I think the theme of “decent, semi-competent people in contrast to evil (or just greedy) semi-incompetent people” is pretty common in Coen Brothers movies. What’s key is that on both sides, there’s something recognizable there. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t like No Country For Old Men – the actions of the villain were just so incomprehensible and he was so hyper-competent that I couldn’t connect with it.
January 30, 2016 @ 10:56 am
Hmmm. I dunno. Obviously Chigurh comes from the book, but he fits into a wider tradition of implacably capable Coen villains with supernatural overtones – the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, Karl Mundt, the Sheriff in O Brother Where Art Thou. And Malvo in the TV series strongly resembles a Chigurh with a sense of humour.
I think what sets Chigurh apart, and contributes to the problem you mention, is the moral blankness of the cosmos he connotes – he presents as an avatar of death or fate, whereas Smalls, Malvo and the Sheriff are demonic (Charlie is a much more complicated kettle of fish). They exist in worlds of meaningful good and evil, whereas the world of NCFOM is just an unreasoning abyss.
January 30, 2016 @ 11:07 am
Jack may write about NCFOM. This is possible. Maybe I’ll flip a coin.
January 30, 2016 @ 2:42 pm
Great article! I love Fargo, and hadn’t been even aware of it being accused of being arch or mocking, because I have always seen Marge is such a perfectly, nigh heroically, decent protagonist, and one who is never close to being the butt of a joke. Truly exemplary symbiosis of the Coens’ screenplay anf McDormand’s starmaking turn.
100% agreed about her behaviour in the conversation with Mike being pivotal. It shows that she is exactly the same person in the context which is much more within average audience member’s “normal” than murders and kidnappings. In fact, this scene always has an extra layer of impact on me, because (without going into personal details) I once have been more or less a Mike, and I was lucky to have “my” Marge be exactly as firm and yet polite as the movie one.
I’d love to read your thought on No Country. It’s tied with Fargo as my favourite Coens, and they make such perfect companion pieces – similar in some ways and complete opposites in others.
April 13, 2016 @ 10:39 am
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