Monday, February 20, 2017

Steve's Top Ten Films: Fargo

I was only somewhat liking Fargo as I watched it for the first time.  In the first thirty minutes, the story was interesting, there were moments of light humor, and there seemed to be the makings of a bumbling caper, amusing but hardly original.  Then the film introduced the character of Police Chief Marge Gunderson, portrayed by Frances McDormand, and it took its first zig when I was expecting it to zag.

When Marge first appears, she is simple in spirit, somewhat naive, and comically nine-months pregnant.  I just knew that she would only solve the kidnapping case at the center of the movie's plot through unlikely coincidences and acts of comedic stupidity akin to something like Inspector Clouseau.  Then she arrived on the scene of a triple homicide, carefully assessed the clues, and reconstructed the circumstances of the crime with an accuracy and economy that would impress Sherlock Holmes.

From there, Fargo becomes an off-beat crime procedural as Marge pursues the kidnappers and begins unraveling the mystery through a persistent application of common sense and moral integrity.  This is a character who can correct another police officer's mistaken interpretation of a clue without making him feel stupid, keep her calm when meeting a mentally unstable classmate, and face down a cold-blooded killer and honestly ask him why he doesn't know that there is more to life than money.  She is the embodiment of classic mid-western values, and the film gently chides this innocent view of life while simultaneously embracing it as the one thing that prevails in the end.

With this in mind, all the characters of Fargo can be placed on a comparison scale of moral integrity and intelligence.  All the major characters, except Marge, are deficient in one or both of those qualities, and the failure they experience results from that flaw.  This also reveals a hidden structure in the film in that the plot events can viewed as a set up to eventually get the most intelligent and most moral character (Marge) face-to-face with the character who is the least intelligent and least moral, but who is the most dangerous because of it.

Fargo may not be the Coen Brothers most favored film, but it is their most flawless film in how its direct simplicity masks a deeper structure of connection between the characters.

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