Reconsidering Fargo, A Deeply Humane Film

There’s no better time and place than beneath a swirling polar vortex to re-watch Fargo, the Coen brothers’ celebrated 1996 gothic comedy.  When most people think of the movie, what comes to mind is Peter Stormare stuffing what’s left of Steve Buscemi in a wood chipper.  But despite its popular reputation as a morbid comedy, Fargo offers a compelling and humane response to the dysfunction that drives the plot.

The hero of Fargo is undoubtedly the kind, competent, and very pregnant police chief of Brainerd, Minnesota: Marge Gunderson.  It is she who not only solves the crime, but brings the surviving fugitive (Stormare) into custody.  I don’t want to argue against that notion here; rather, I want to extend it to include her husband, Norm.

It would be tempting to pigeonhole Marge as a “feminist” heroine.  She is, after all, a police chief and presumably the primary breadwinner in the Gunderson household.  While she protects and serves the people of Brainerd, Norm paints ducks and goes fishing.  But such labels unfairly constrain the appeal of her character and her relationship with Norm.  Whereas a lesser film portraying a lesser relationship would characterize Marge as domineering or Norm as insecure (thereby affirming precisely the stereotypes the film postures to undermine), in Fargo their marriage remains, radically, one of equals.

The Gundersons complement one another, but not in stereotypical ways.  It’s not that Norm is strong while Marge is fragile, or that Norm is distant while Marge is compassionate, or that Norm is stoic while Marge is flighty.  They do not complement one another by embodying particular “masculine” and “feminine” virtues and shortcomings; they do so, for lack of a better term, simply by loving one another.

By “love” here I mean that they desire and act toward the good of one another—in big ways, of course, such as caring for their unborn child, but mostly in small ones.  When she is called in the early morning by the station after the discovery of the first homicides, he gets up to make breakfast.  When he needs “nightcrawlers” (earthworms for fish bait), she brings some even while investigating the murders.  When each needs comfort, the other provides it with compassion and understanding.

Yet, at the same time, they do not lapse into androgyny.  Marge is, quite obviously, a woman, a wife, and a mother and Norm is a man, a husband, and a father; they are not interchangeable.   But they can be different in this fundamental way without fulfilling particular culturally-construed roles or self-consciously undermining those roles (and therefore fulfilling a different set of roles).  Their virtuous authenticity does not inhere in his “manhood” or her “womanhood,” but in their shared humanity.  They do not see and treat one another as types, but as persons.

It is here, not in clever and heroic police work, where Fargo proposes the answer to the criminal dysfunction that drives the plot.  After the infamous wood chipper, the film closes unceremoniously with Marge and Norm together in their bed snuggling on a chilly Minnesota night.  It is one of the simplest, most evocative portrayals of marital love in recent American film.  He has an arm to hold after a traumatic day on the tundra; she encourages him after his art was selected for the three-cent stamp (rather than the 29-cent stamp).  Then:

“Heck Norm you know we’re doin’ pretty good.”

“I love you Margie.”

“I love you Norm.”

[He places his hand on her belly.] “Two more months.”

“Two more months.”

The answer to violence is love, the answer to death, new life.

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