by Kara VanderBijl
When I moved to Chicago three years ago, I brought four large boxes of books and zero pairs of socks. I wasn’t oblivious to the cold, hard fact of the average Midwestern winter, but until then I’d spent most of my life in Los Angeles and the South of France. I’d only seen winter in the movies. When you’ve only seen winter on the big screen, you start to think of it as an idyllic season of cozy hibernation. You forget that it’s actually a study in natural selection.
Inevitably, November hit. I walked to Target in a pair of flimsy ballet flats, coat collar up to my ears. I shed four or five layers of scarves in the entryway before I could see well enough to find the sock section. Finally armed with appropriate winter footwear, I was forced to admit that I was out of my element, something the rest of winter 2011 took great pleasure in proving to me over and over again.
In the Coen brothers’ 1996 film Fargo, Jerry Lundegaard walks into a North Dakota bar in a cloud of discomfort and, we imagine, arctic air. It’s the winter of 1987. Lundegaard, played by William H. Macy, wears a hat over his earmuffs and anxiously touches his chin and lips. Jerry’s a car salesman who has run into some financial difficulties, and he’s come to Fargo to arrange for two criminals, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare), whom he met through an ex-con mechanic in his employ, to kidnap his wife. He hopes to convince his father-in-law Wade to pay $80,000 in ransom, a share of which Jerry plans to keep. In exchange for their services, Carl and Gaear will receive the other half of the ransom money and a brand new 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera.
Pulling off a crime, even a well-planned one, is no easy feat – something that’s easy to forget when you’re watching incredibly attractive actors execute complex heists and spectacular getaways once or twice a month. But just like a cold, hard Midwestern winter, Fargo reminds us that there are no schemes without slip-ups, and that interesting characters—rather than interesting plots—create the most compelling stories.
I saw Fargo for the first time at the recommendation of my boyfriend, Jens, who’s a native Minnesotan in every way, from his sports teams of choice (Gophers) to his ability to leave the house without a coat until the mercury hits 40 degrees. Fargo is one of his favorite films, and he laughs the whole way through.
“Who’s your favorite character?” I asked.
“Definitely Jerry,” he said.
I didn’t understand at first. How can you sympathize with a man who has his wife kidnapped for money? Not to mention that Fargo is rife with characters that I felt to be far more interesting: Carl and Gaear, for example, who are about as enthused with Jerry as I was, especially when he fails to deliver half of the money up front as agreed. Jerry, whose Minnesota niceties are overshadowed by a habit of saying too much, too quickly, has little business trusting them, either. From the beginning, they’re more of a comedy duo: hotheaded, mouthy Carl offset by drowsy, disinterested Gaear. At least, I thought, they’re funny.
Despite some reluctance on both sides, Carl and Gaear accept the job and, after a quick stop in Brainerd, Minnesota to screw a couple of prostitutes in a sleazy motel, they arrived in the Twin Cities where they abduct Jean Lundegaard. Meanwhile, Jerry’s facing growing pressure at work: GMAC is threatening to recall loans, and Wade refuses to accept a real-estate deal that his son-in-law had been promoting. Jerry’s peace of mind now rests entirely on the kidnapping, and as he walks through the door into his own silent, ransacked home, his wife’s struggles against her assailants evident, it’s clear that his professional life is not the only one unraveling at the seams. That’s when I began to see him in a new light.
Jerry spends a lot of time in Fargo sitting down—behind a desk, in his car, on a bench in the front entry of his house struggling to remove his snow boots, across tables from interrogators and criminals. Sometimes he’s doodling. Sometimes he’s holding his head in his hands. By walking into a bar in North Dakota he set his plan in motion, and now he must sit and observe the consequences, watch the ice gather thick on his windshield. Don’t we all feel like that sometimes—like one simple decision determines the crash course of the rest of our days? How many of us wouldn’t lie, steal and cheat if it meant saving our skins?
On their way back through Brainerd, Carl and Gaear are pulled over by a state trooper because the stolen Ciera lacks the required license plates and tags. Carl’s attempts to bribe the trooper fail, so Gaear pulls a gun out of the glove compartment and shoots him. As Carl drags the trooper’s body off the road, a couple passing by in a car sees him. Gaear pursues them in the Ciera, and when they swerve off the icy road, he murders them.
Like I learned early on, you don’t mess with a Midwestern winter. In Chicago, the temperature isn’t the only thing that plummets; crime rates drop in the colder months, too. It may be that subzero wind chills cool tempers, butFargo provided another explanation that I hadn’t yet considered. It’s no stretch to say that the film’s Minnesota winter is not only a backdrop, but a key player. Each character’s movements are recorded in sharp contrast on its blank white board. Covering up your tracks isn’t just a pretty proverb when you’ve recently killed someone in the snow.
All of the characters in the film grapple with winter in one way or another. Jerry tries to erase it like he tries, angrily, to scrape ice off his windshield; he is just as evasive with the weather as he is with the people around him. Carl and Gaear can’t hide from it. We’re a third of the way through Fargo when Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), winter’s pal, winter’s foil and ally, shows up. What the snow can’t capture, Marge does. Marge, Brainerd’s chief of police, a woman and seven months pregnant, enforces socially what the bleak winter exposes naturally: uniformity, a standard by which everyone is measured.
I loved Marge immediately. Her singsong, her sweaters, and her (very polite) refusal to put up with anyone’s crap endeared her to me. Plus, aside from Jerry’s kidnapped wife and the prostitutes Carl and Gaear spend a night with, she’s the only woman in the film. If her pregnancy adds nothing to the plot, other than a few moments of comic relief, it’s essential to our understanding of her character. When she’s investigating bodies, it’s morning sickness – not the sight of gore – that makes her nauseous. Her condition makes her vulnerable, but it does not compromise her professionalism. In fact, she’s at the apex: not only of womanhood, in the sense that she is accomplishing something only a woman can, but also at the top of her game as a police chief, outthinking everyone around her. You’ll notice that while the male members of the police force do things like track phone calls and collect tips, she’s the one on the ground studying tracks and interrogating witnesses.
Until Marge’s arrival, we’d been dealing with characters who possess uncertain identities: Jerry, the family man who is also a thief, a liar, and a double-crosser; Carl, whose impetuousness gets in the way of his ability to perform the job; and Gaear, drowsy, nonchalant, lethal. But Marge is Minnesota. She demands the survival of the fittest, and the fittest are those who conform to the values important in her state: hard work, social responsibility, moral rightness, and independence.
In one of my favorite scenes, a policeman interviews a local bartender who has a tip on Carl and Gaear’s whereabouts. After a hilarious exchange, the two men lapse into conversation about how a cold front is coming in. Both of them look up at the sky, as if to observe the weather, turn their backs on one another, and part ways without another word. This simple moment, to me, captures Marge’s Minnesota, a place where politeness is king and social discomfort is avoided at all costs.
Carl and Gaear are antagonists in the film not only because they’re criminals, but more importantly because they embody two different antitheses to Marge’s Minnesota. Carl is an alien; he doesn’t belong. He is “funny-looking”, which becomes a recurring joke among the locals, and which disrupts his and Gaear’s anonymity. Plus, he’s incapable of playing nice, which really sets him apart.
Gaear is stoic to a fault; he barely speaks. However, he after he murders the state trooper and the witnesses, his reticence communicates instability and sociopathic tendencies. Making quick work of anyone who stands in his way, Gaear is the perfect foil for Marge, who matches him in her ability to get the job done. However, where Gaear’s emotionless countenance reveals a lack of empathy, Marge’s composed, rational manner speaks to confidence in her intuition and decisions.
That’s why I can’t relate to Marge Gunderson.
On the other side of the table, doodling nervously, sits Jerry. He isn’t a “bad guy” – that label is far too simple. Sure, he’s after some cash, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get it. But let’s not forget that the reason for his troubles is shrouded in mystery, even from the beginning: he refuses to tell his partners in crime why he’s in trouble, stating that it’s a “personal matter”. If you’re an ace police chief or an ace scoundrel, you’ve got an infallible raison d’etre: you’re in it for justice, or you’re in it for the money, or you’re in it for blood. But if you’re Jerry, you’re in it because you’re a run-of-the-mill Minnesotan who made a mistake somewhere along the way and desperately wants to make it right, somehow without losing his place in the community at the same time. Nowthat’s relatable.
My boyfriend loves, and is fiercely loyal to his home state; I’ve heard this feeling is common among natives of the land of ten thousand lakes. Since I’ve been living out of moving boxes for almost as long as I can remember, this feeling is foreign to me. It’s also what I want more than anything in the world. I want to kidnap it and demand that my rootless childhood pay ransom for it. It is probably why I love Marge, why her settled strength is so appealing to me.
For those of us who can only identify with Jerry, Fargo isn’t a summer blockbuster. It’s a wintry tale of human struggle that, like its characters, dons several identities; it’s a subtle force of nature that doesn’t take sides but instead records movements, like tracks in the snow. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about living in the Midwest, it’s that if you have proper footwear, you’ll be just fine. You might even belong.
Kara VanderBijl is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago, drinks tea, and falls asleep at parties. She is a former senior editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room, the previous managing editor of This Recording, and a former arts & culture contributor at Gapers Block.