Monday, August 4, 2008


So, here's my take on Fargo, at last. For those of you eager to read this, sorry for the delay. Despite my previous facetious post, Fargo is actually one of my favorite films of all time. I love the characters and the dialog and the moral simplicity and the beautiful photography by Roger Deacons, but I also feel that this is a film with many layers and only multiple viewings could ever do it justice.

In his post, Travis mentions the term, "Minnesota nice" and gives some examples of local vernacular. I'd like to take this a step further by saying that the upper mid-western culture represented in Fargo is actually a main character in the film - weird, quirky, and nice. Bloody nice.

The "niceness" of the culture is passive-aggressive, setting the tone for every single action taken by every single character. "Minnesota nice" represents the status quo and the criminals represent the underbelly of "polite" cultures. Often times, overly polite cultures tend to be more oppressive, more intolerant, and more violent. Fargo is not only a great morality play, but a commentary on cultures and societies that alienate large portions of their citizenry through arbitrary customs like being overly polite. Jerry and his accomplices are citizens on the fringe of that culture, unable to connect; alienated by smiling faces and winterly landscapes.

What's scary about Fargo is that Jerry is such a schmuck. Yet, he's an every-man, and we identify with his predicament. He's caught in a system created by his locality (including his family and his inability to stand up for himself) and he feels trapped. People do really stupid things when they feel trapped. In this way, the real villain of Fargo, is the culture of upper mid-western America. Ignorance breeds sin and Jerry illustrates this very clearly. He's been insulated by his culture and is totally unfamiliar with real crime, even ignorant of his actions. Jerry commits his crimes without a clear sense of reality and because he lives in a "polite" culture, Jerry is virtually unfamiliar with criminality.

As Jerry's plan keeps getting fouled up by "nice" people, you begin to sense the doom that awaits him. This sense of dread is also a product of "Minnesota nice." There is something quite eerie about people who smile and act polite all the time in such a dreary environment. Their behavior has a "big brother" feel. As a result, the only characters in Fargo that feel real to audiences unfamiliar with the culture of upper mid-western America are the criminals. Audiences feel alienated by the politeness of the culture and laugh uncomfortably when Jerry and the two criminals don't play along.

I guess every town in America has its criminals. What's interesting is that the criminal behavior in Fargo actually says more about "Minnesota nice" than all of the smiles and accents. Fargo brilliantly uses criminal behavior as a kind of cultural analysis. The Cohens appear to be saying that "Minnesota nice" is actually kind of bloody. In this sense, I guess one could argue that the violence represents tensions in the culture that have been masked by the niceness.

I could say more, but I'm getting tired.


Grabloid said...

Great post, Andrew.

I like this insight into "Minnesota Nice"...I totally agree, it is THE main character in the film. Almost every important action (and there are many) is shrouded in a deceptive "nice"/polite gesture. That deception is being used for both 'good' and 'bad' purposes (if we are speaking morally). The interesting thing is that it seems to be the only way these people can operate (as you pointed out in the post). "Minnesota Nice" is what almost all of the tension rides on in the film. It is the "nice" politeness that leaves Jerry dumbfounded in his situation, making mistake after mistake as we desperately watch him fall into a total mess. It's the same politeness that puts Margie into 100 awkward moments in her life and in the investigation. Even when the man she knew from high school is hitting on her very awkwardly and creep-ishly in the restaurant she can't say anything straight up to him. (ex.) "Awe, no problem...I'd just like ya ta sit over there, ya know? I can see yer face..." The audience is all tensed up, wanting her to say: "Hey, you sick bastard, back off!" (Add some creative expletives...) She can't drop a straight up hint to get him to stop right away.

The only character that seems to be outside of the 'nice' politeness is Jerry's father-in-law, and frankly, it ends up getting him killed by Carl... Jerry's father-in-law's co-worker likes to sugar coat everything a bit, though. Also, Carl and Grimsrud ignore the politeness, but still end up having struggles dealing with it.

You're right too, on a 2nd/3rd/4th viewing this strange social relationship reveals itself more and more. Bloody nice, indeed.

Andrew James said...

Great follow up. Thanks. I'm glad that you agree.

Jason Pyles, Movie Critic said...


I appreciated everything you wrote, but I didn't quite follow this:

"Jerry commits his crimes without a clear sense of reality and because he lives in a "polite" culture, Jerry is virtually unfamiliar with criminality."

I don't know that I can buy your assertion that Jerry is virtually unfamiliar with criminality. How can that be true?

If you're not too tired, could you expound on that a little more?


Andrew James said...


Here's how I see it:

Jerry is a bit naive to crime. His culture (much like our own Mormon culture) has insulated him from the harsh realities of his decisions. As such, Jerry doesn't know what he's getting into. He's naive to what his crimes could (and do) entail. To use our own local vernacular, he lives in a sort of bubble. But this bubble is not a product of religious conservatism, but rather an overly polite culture.

I see Jerry as a man who, because of his naivety, allows far greater crime to come of his plans than was originally intended. Jerry does not want to hurt anyone, but because of his ignorance, he is unable to calculate human error into his schemes. Jerry is far too trusting of those he employs to carry out his plans. This trust is a byproduct of "Minnesota nice" and directly influenced by his polite culture.

Everyone is so worried about being polite all the time, that being honest or frank takes backseat. This leads to all kinds of problems. You can see the effect of the culture on Jerry throughout the film as everyone constantly takes advantage of him. This is also made evident by Margie's rendezvous with an old friend at the restaurant.

This "polite" culture has insulated Jerry from the harsh realities of criminal behavior and because he has been shielded from them, his behavior is somewhat childlike and ignorant as the mayhem unfolds.

I really don't see how Jerry can be viewed any other way. He's not your typical car salesmen who manipulates customers with smooth talk and constant reassurance. Even as he swindles customers, he's second guessing his decisions and being bullied and bossed around. Jerry is a man who feels no control over his destiny and out of desperation, calculates a crime.

He's not a criminal in the traditional sense, but rather a desperate man, who being largely affected by his culture, makes bad decisions without the foresight of a more experienced person.

Barrett Hilton said...

For me a big part of the appeal of this movie is watching Jerry enter into an arrangement to have his wife forcefully removed from her home and held prisoner and trusting that it can all be done with a smile and a handshake, and then seeing everything go horribly wrong. Jerry looks at the whole arrangement as a business deal where if people get compensated they'll do what they agree to. But he doesn't take into account the selfish, brutal and scheming nature of his partners in crime. There's an assumption there maybe that people are good underneath or something naive and frankly false like that--that their consciences or something would stop them from doing something truly violent.

These themes are also explored in No Country for Old Men. I'm thinking of the gas station clerk who says to Chigurh something like, "I'm just making polite small talk, if you can't accept that then I don't know what else to say to you." Why would someone not want to talk politely about where they're headed? Well, why would someone kill someone for no good reason and seemingly not feel bad about it? Hopefully we're all dumbfounded and unable to make sense of violent people, but hopefully we're not naive enough to think they don't exist. Like Jerry.

And he's not just naive about crime, but business as well as evidenced by his thinking that a company he's not actually part of would build a parking lot and make him an equal partner in the venture because it was his idea. It's like a screenwriter wanting to control the production after selling the script. Not likely to happen.

Naiveté is not only Jerry's flaw but his greatest crime. It's the common practice of seeking out schemes in place of making informed educated plans that involve hard work and skill acquisition. He didn't know what he was getting into so he had absolutely no business getting into it. He was willing to risk the life of his wife over a blind and unfounded hope of his that his stupid plan would work out.

Jason Pyles, Movie Critic said...

OK. After reading Andrew’s and Barrett’s comments looking at Jerry more closely, I can agree about his naiveté and his bubble-like sheltering beneath the Minnesota nice culture.

But I can’t get past his apparent disregard for his wife’s fear during her abduction. It's difficult for me to believe that he (or any sentient person) could ever be ignorant enough or sheltered enough to overlook such a consequence.

But you guys are probably right, because he seems to casually dismiss almost all the suffering that happens in the movie because of his decisions. And I don't believe his character is intentionally cruel.

Hey, I just realized, we’re still talking about “Fargo.” … Hasn’t anyone watched “Dancer in the Dark,” yet? If not, you should. It is a fabulous discussion piece. I already submitted a post that pleases me about that film titled “Bjork Thrives Best Hermit Style.”


Grabloid said...

A quick response to a segment in Barret Hilton's last comment:

He said:
"Hopefully we're all dumbfounded and unable to make sense of violent people, but hopefully we're not naive enough to think they don't exist. Like Jerry."

I would add:
I also hope that we can have the capacity/capability to recognize violent and deceptive impulses/forces within ourselves (like they exist in Jerry, they exist in us all). The shadow is part of the light (a well known psychological quote).

The question is: "What do we do about these feelings/impulses". We need to recognize and think about the evil/ugly/destructive within that we can understand what they are, where they are coming from them, and react to them in a healthy way, as opposed to acting upon them inappropriately. We can sublimate these feelings through healthy activities (artworks, exercise, sports, talk-therapy, whatever), we can act on them violently or otherwise crudely (like Carl/Grimsrud do!), or we can repress them and watch them seep into our other actions (like Jerry!). Jerry's dark impulses are as simple as the desire for money, he isn't willing to kill and kidnap, but he is willing to hire others to kill and kidnap...and to put his loved ones on the line...complete repression and deferment. Jerry hardly makes an actual physical violent action in the film, but the consequences of his repression and misguided decisions are very violent.

I would love to go on, but, am I beating a dead horse?

Barrett Hilton said...

Love those ideas, and I think ultimately Fargo is most beneficial if we find ways of identifying with Jerry and others, and learn from them, and see their flaws in us. Like I said in my post, Jerry is a very relatable character in many ways.

Jason, I don't think that Jerry's being naive lets him off the hook in any way. The matter of him putting his wife in harm to begin with and him believing naively that he can control the outcome of his scheme or count on the thugs to behave are two different issues, and I was really referring to the latter. His desperation, stress and passive aggressive personality are what lead him to make a decision he knows is wrong. Minnesota nice doesn't keep you from knowing that getting your wife kidnapped is wrong. He's selfish and desperate which leads him to plot a scheme that will put his wife in danger, and he's horribly naive in carrying out his scheme.

Jason Pyles, Movie Critic said...

First of all, I'm totally relieved to hear that it's not unusual to have disturbing inclinations to do something terrible. In fact, I have some kind of weird, self-destructive urge to do the worst possible thing at the worst possible moment sometimes.

So, men, this is off topic from "Fargo," but why do people have such bizarre urges?

If what you two say is true, and the Coens intentionally meant "Fargo" to make a statement about that phenomenon, then I'm dazzled anew.