Fargo is a 1996 crime film directed by Joel Coen, produced by Ethan Coen, and written by both of them. It stars William H. Macy and Frances McDormand, with Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, and Peter Stormare.
At the Cannes Film Festival, Joel Coen won the Prix de la mise en scène, and Fargo was nominated for the Palme d’Or. The film was also nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It won two of these nominations: Best Actress for McDormand and Best Original Screenplay for the Coens. A TV series of the same name, based on the same story, premiered in 2014.
A link to quotes from the film can be found here.
Though the opening text of the film claims it’s based on a true story, having happened in Minnesota in 1987, the fictitious persons disclaimer shown during the closing credits contradicts the opening claim, as does Joel Coen’s explanation in 2015 that the story was “completely made up.”
Still, elements of the otherwise fictional movie can be traced to factual events, such as the 1986 murder of Helle Crafts from Connecticut by her husband, Richard, who disposed of her body with a wood chipper. Furthermore, I will argue that another kind of historical fact, if you will, can be gleaned, via allegory, from Fargo: that of the petite bourgeoisie, personified in Jerry Lundegaard (Macy, who fought tooth and nail to get the part, which he correctly believed he was perfect for), using fascism, personified by Carl Showalter (Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Stormare), to rein in the greedy excesses of the haute bourgeoisie, personified by Wade Gustafson (Presnell).
II: Snowy White
The opening shot begins with an all-white background that soon reveals itself to be a road in the Minnesota/North Dakota area on an extremely snowy day–so snowy that one cannot at first make out the horizon, or anything, beyond such a dense snowfall. As it says on page one of the script, “A car bursts through the curtain of snow.” (Coen and Coen, page 1) It’s a brand-new, light brown Cutlass Ciera.
The production crew had the bad luck of having to film during one of the least snowy winters of the area’s history, so artificial snow was added through the use of an ice chipping machine.
Anyway, what we have in the opening title sequence is first, white lettering on a black background (the spurious claim that the movie is based on a true story), and then, black lettering against a white background. This black-and-white contrast gives a hint as to one of the themes of the movie: the dialectical relationship between the white of innocence versus the black of criminality; these opposites being sublated in the character of Jerry.
The dense curtain of snow obscuring the horizon and everything else, causing total non-differentiation, suggests the disorienting trauma of what Lacan called The Real. This unsettling feeling is important for setting the emotional tone of a film depicting the horror of Jerry’s crime. Desperate to get out of a tight financial predicament, Jerry hires Carl and Gaear to kidnap his wife, Jean (played by Kristin Rudrüd), in order to extort a large sum of money from Jerry’s rich, but cheap, father-in-law Wade, to pay the ransom and give Jerry the money he needs.
One must ask: what kind of a man does such a thing to his own wife? He seems like such a nice, mild-mannered guy…on the surface. The symbolism of him driving the Ciera out of the white background is thus fitting. The Real is where he’s coming from, a senseless, inexplicable horror, a horror of icy cold isolation and desolation.
III: So Far to Go
Jerry reaches Fargo, North Dakota, and three brief scenes in the screenplay not included in the film have him in a hotel and a restaurant (Coen and Coen, pages 1-2). Though they add nothing to the character that we won’t find out later (hence, their exclusion from the film), they already give us a sense of his incompetence and isolation, particularly when he lies about his name (“Anderson,” a name he’ll use again at a motel where he’s arrested at the end of the movie) to the hotel clerk when signing in, then almost finishes writing “Jerry Lundegaard” before realizing his mistake. At the restaurant, he sits all alone.
Then we get to the film’s actual beginning in the King of Clubs pool hall and bar (actually filmed in the northeast section of Minneapolis, not in Fargo, according to the story). In fact, none of the movie was filmed in Fargo; and since this scene in the bar is the only one in Fargo as far as the story is concerned, why name the movie Fargo?
The Coen brothers considered Fargo a better-sounding name than Brainerd, where, or near where, scenes much more central to the plot occur. I’d like to add an interpretive explanation of my own: the film is about how far you go to get money.
The odd thing about starting the film with Jerry–rather than with Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson (McDormand), who doesn’t appear until half an hour into the film (i.e., she being the true protagonist, not Jerry)–is that with this arrangement of character introduction, considered heterodox according to scriptwriting conventions, causes us to sympathize not with the heroine, but with the one who, due to his desperation, incompetence, and poor planning, sets in motion the chain of events and misadventures that end in tragedy. The script scenes mentioned above that were cut from the film reinforce Jerry’s centrality–hence my placing of Macy’s name before McDormand’s in the opening paragraph.
So we come back to the black-and-white paradox starting the film off, a paradox of which Jerry’s character is central. We sympathize with him, since he’s the first person we, the audience, connect with; yet he is, in effect, the central villain, since the kidnapping that starts the chain of violent events is his idea.
Related to this sympathy/antipathy is how, on the surface, his mild-mannered nature is an example of “Minnesota nice,” which is a veil of politeness covering his darker motive–his wish to use the kidnapping of his wife to extort money from her rich father. As the Coen brothers noted in the featurette to the Special Edition DVD, it’s the nicest people who are the most violent, for they are the most repressed.
Connected with Minnesota nice (and nasty) are the idiosyncratic accent (expertly taught to the cast by dialect coach Liz Himelstein) and mannerisms of the Minnesotans, which add a whimsical comedy to an otherwise dark and tragic story. Apart from being a fictional crime movie supposedly based on a true story, Fargo is a black comedy; so the paradoxes pile up.
So Jerry is a tragicomic character. His bumbling, nerdy exterior (i.e., his coat and hat, his accent, and his spastic temper tantrums), him fittingly from an area including a city fortuitously named Brainerd, hides a dark interior that would go far, go way out, to the point of putting his own wife in danger just to get money from his father-in-law. His nervous stammering–delivered faithfully by Macy according to the script–really comes out for the first time when Carl and Gaear grill him about why he wants his wife kidnapped.
IV: Petite Bourgeois Jerry
Also, Jerry as a personification of the petite bourgeoisie shows us the tragicomic aspects of this class, as well as how they’re perceived to a be a social ideal in the context of capitalism; yet they have this slimy underbelly that resorts to recruiting such people as fascists whenever they feel the pressures of the capitalist system that normally idealizes them.
Contrasted with the proletariat who works for others, and the capitalist class who doesn’t really work, but just exploits others and gets rich off of their work, the middle class (e.g., small businessmen, managers, etc.) are seen as those who work for themselves. The petite bourgeois is seen as representing all the virtues of the hard-working self-starter.
Because, as Marx noted in Capital, vol. 1, “One capitalist always strikes down many others” (Marx, page 929), we can see how the big capitalist makes life difficult for the small capitalist. After all, class conflict isn’t limited to the bourgeoisie in general exploiting the proletariat. There is actually a three-way conflict between the upper, middle, and lower classes. We socialists don’t talk much about the problems of the petite bourgeoisie because, well, those aren’t our problems.
Still, it’s important to discuss these problems as they relate to the genesis of fascism. I’ve discussed, in previous posts, how the ruling class uses fascism as a weapon against proletarian uprisings. We mustn’t neglect, however, the crucial role that the middle class plays in promoting fascism when they have financial problems of their own, and Jerry’s hiring of Carl and Gaear to extort money from Wade is, allegorically speaking, a vivid illustration of such a promotion.
The economic problems of Germany in the early 1920s, with the gargantuan inflation of the time, hurt everyone, including small businesses, unbearably. It was tempting for many, therefore, to seek out quick-to-find, simplistic diagnoses of the problem (blame the Jews and communists), and to find quick and easy solutions (support the Nazis). The violence of Carl and Gaear easily parallels the violence of the SA and SS.
The petite bourgeoisie is, from time to time, held down by the haute bourgeoisie, but as fellow capitalists, the former must blame the latter in a way that doesn’t indict the economic system that normally benefits both classes. Neither class is the working class, who sees both as unequivocal class enemies. So the middle class must diagnose the problem in a non-anti-capitalist way: to deflect blame from capitalism, one must blame the problem on the ‘corrupters’ of capitalism–the Jews, the ‘corporatism‘ caused by the government, the NWO, the Freemasons, or the communists as believed to be a Jewish, Wall Street conspiracy that has nothing to do with promoting workers’ rights.
Now, what’s conspicuously absent in Fargo, from the point of view of my allegory, is anyone personifying a worker’s struggle against capitalism. All we have, instead, is the class conflict between the petite and haute bourgeoisie as represented respectively in Jerry and Wade.
Recall how the movie introduces that relationship when Jerry first talks to Wade, who’s watching the TV and never looks back at Jerry to acknowledge his presence. When Jerry tries to convince Wade about a deal he wants to make, one that will benefit his wife and son, Scotty (played by Tony Denman), Wade says, “Jean and Scotty never have to worry,” completely excluding Jerry, and further isolating him.
So, we see here a continuation of the themes of isolation and loneliness. The alienation that capitalism causes cuts right into the bourgeois family, as we see here in the first conversations between Jerry and Wade. On the surface, things would seem pleasant in the family when Jerry enters the house, with Jean cheerfully telling him that her dad is visiting; but as soon as the two men start chatting, that wintery coldness returns, as if it had blown in from outside.
Further signs of alienation in this family appear when Scotty wants to leave the dinner table early, and Wade disapproves of the naughtiness he imagines the teenage boy will be indulging in with his friends in McDonald’s. This family would represent the petite bourgeois ideal of the father as breadwinner, the housewife, and the grandfather whose wealth will ensure security for all of them…except that it’s only Jean and Scotty who won’t need to worry, apparently.
VI: Guilty and Not Guilty
That paradox of innocence vs guilt is apparent later in the film when Scotty, annoyed that he may have to quit hockey because of his bad grades at school, says “there’s no fucking way…”, causing Jean to gasp at him in wide-eyed horror, as well as a reprimand from his father to watch his language. This is all when we already know what Jerry wants his two hired thugs to do to Jean.
Similarly, the smiling, mild-mannered persona Jerry uses at work (the illusion especially given in that photo of him as a used car salesman on the office wall), making an irate customer pay extra for a sealant he never agreed to adding to a car he’s buying, hides what “a…fuckin’ liar” he is, as the customer strains to say, with an effort that breaks the ‘Minnesota nice’ stereotype. Of course, if Wade would just help Jerry with his financial troubles, he wouldn’t be so desperate for money that he cheats his customers and puts his wife in danger. When Marge, at the end of the movie, tells Gaear that there’s more to life than money, she should be saying it to Wade, for it’s his parsimony that has actually driven Jerry’s desperation so needlessly over the brink.
VII: Ill Communication
To get back to the theme of loneliness, consider the conversation…one-sided…between Carl and Gaear as they drive over to the Brainerd area to kidnap Jean. Carl is so annoyed at how laconic Gaear is (Stormare says a total of 80 words…18 lines of dialogue, no more than a sentence at a time…in the whole movie!) that it feels as if he’s all alone in that Ciera.
That, prior to the kidnapping, Carl and Gaear find a pair of prostitutes to have sex with is more indication of alienation and loneliness (this solicitation can also be connected to fascism through such things as the ‘Joy Division‘ and ‘Salon Kitty‘). For these two small-time criminals, sex is a mere transaction, not part of a loving relationship. That Carl later enlists the services of another hooker (services interrupted by the vicious attack of Shep Proudfoot [played by Steve Reevis]) shows that this manner of ‘looking for love’ must be a habit, at least for Carl.
There certainly doesn’t seem to be much love between Jerry and Jean.
VIII: Safe at Home?
As for the kidnapping itself, it’s ironic that it happens while Jean, a housewife knitting while watching TV, is at home where she would presumably be safe. The petite bourgeois, patriarchal family organization, with the man as protector/provider and wife whose place is in the home, is rationalized with the idea that she is kept safe and protected there, when what we see in Fargo is the opposite. Not only is she kidnapped at home, but it’s her ‘protector’ husband, of all people, who has arranged the crime.
It’s important in this connection to recall how, in my allegory, Carl and Gaear represent fascism and its violence. We see the kidnapping of the housewife right in the home of the patriarchal family. This juxtaposition of symbolic fascist violence in a petite bourgeois, patriarchal home is in turn symbolic of how fascism is rooted in such a family.
Wilhelm Reich, in chapter five of his Mass Psychology of Fascism, famously discussed how the family is the first cell of fascist society: “From the standpoint of social development, the family cannot be considered the basis of the authoritarian state, only as one of the most important institutions which support it. It is, however, its central reactionary germ cell, the most important place of reproduction of the reactionary and conservative individual. Being itself caused by the authoritarian system, the family becomes the most important institution for its conservation. In this connection, the findings of Morgan and of Engels are still entirely correct.”
Reich also saw the rise of fascism as a symptom of sexual repression. We’ve certainly seen much repression in the form of ‘Minnesota nice’ in, for example, the aversion to swearing, the use of the word fuck being particularly upsetting. Fargo‘s prominent use of euphemisms (e.g., ‘Jeez,’ ‘darn,’ ‘heck’) is one of the many examples of whimsical humour, behind which Fargo hides its darker side, that black-and-white paradox.
These paradoxes of the nice vs nasty husband come out when he comes home in that nerdy hat and coat, saying, “Hon?…Got the growshries…” (Coen and Coen, page 29). On the surface, we have this ‘nice’ man who helps his wife with the grocery shopping, yet the kidnapping was all his idea.
Added to this is when he practices what he’ll say to Wade on the phone about the kidnapping (Macy’s dialogue idea, not the Coens’). He sounds all distraught, but when he picks up the phone and calls Wade, he calmly says, “Yah, Wade Gustafson, please” to the receptionist. This change in tone, showing how fake the dismay in his voice is during the practice, is obviously for humorous effect, yet it should also disconcert us: he doesn’t really care about Jean. Such is the tragicomic aspect of the black-and-white paradox.
IX: Black Night
The scene of Carl and Gaear driving down the road at night with Jean in the back seat is fittingly surrounded in black, a contrast to the white we saw at the beginning of the film. We saw Jerry emerge, with the Ciera, from the white of the undifferentiated, traumatizing Real of the snow; now, we see Carl and Gaear, in the Ciera, driving through the black of night of the Real. Black and white are thus dialectically unified opposites, as are Jerry’s ‘Minnesota nice’ and the nastiness of his two hired thugs.
With the entrance of a state trooper (and, soon enough, Marge) stopping Carl and Gaear near Brainerd for not displaying temporary registration tags, we see a new element in our allegory: the conflict between regulated forms of capitalism (as personified in the state trooper and Marge) and the unregulated, “free market” version (as personified in the lawless two thugs and in Jerry).
Yes, I have linked fascism with right-wing libertarianism, which shouldn’t be surprising, since the latter ideology has often lapsed into the former. Normally, the petite bourgeoisie advocates “small government” out of a wish to minimize their taxes, but when times get tough, as they do for Jerry, the middle class often turns to fascism and its violent, authoritarian government for help, with no particular concern for how contradictory or hypocritical the sudden switch from ‘small, non-intrusive government’ to big, authoritarian government is.
More juxtapositions between nice and nasty, and between comic and tragic, occur when Carl tries to sweet-talk the trooper, and when this doesn’t work, Gaear pulls out a gun from the glove compartment and puts a bullet in the trooper’s head. A car comes by, the driver in a hat and coat to rival Jerry’s in their dorkiness; the driver and passenger of that car are now witnesses to the cop-killing, prompting Gaear to chase after and kill them. We feel badly for the dorky guy who runs away and gets a bullet in the back; but we feel worse for the passenger in the car crash, who looks pleadingly and helplessly at her killer before she gets “this execution-type deal” (Coen and Coen, page 42)
Finally, we’re introduced to Marge, and in the most banal way possible. As the personification not only of justice and goodness in the movie, but also of all that is considered wholesome in mainstream American society, she is found in peaceful sleep next to her husband in the wee hours of the morning, that peace interrupted by a call telling her about the killings.
Reinforcing that wholesomeness, yet modifying it with a contemporary liberal reversal of sex roles, Marge’s husband, Norm (played by John Carroll Lynch), insists that before she goes out to do her police work, he’ll cook her some breakfast. Even more wholesomeness is shown by the fact that she is seven months pregnant.
Since this is a Hollywood movie, the moral values it represents will be those of the mainstream, bourgeois liberal variety, so those values will be personified in cops, defenders of the more regulated version of capitalism.
XI: One Capitalist Always Strikes Down Many Others
The toxicity of “free market” capitalism has affected the family, as we can see in Wade’s curmudgeonly reaction to the kidnapping of his daughter. He is so cheap, he wants to try offering the kidnappers half a million dollars instead of the full million demanded (Coen and Coen, page 47). If he’s willing to cut corners on paying out money to save his own daughter, imagine how much more he’d resist paying his fair share of taxes, or dealing with any other profit-reducing regulations.
Jerry, as the personification of the petite bourgeoisie, has to deal with such resistance to help him out of his financial tight spot, the kind of resistance that, in my allegory, the haute bourgeoisie (Wade) would give to the small capitalists to prevent them from rising to a point where they’d be a threat to the big capitalist. Wade’s resisting even when trying to save his daughter.
“And for what? For a little bit of money.” Jerry would have Jean kidnapped for that “little bit,” too (this thoughtless act is paralleled with that of the petite bourgeoisie’s embrace of fascism, who gave no thought at all to how this embrace would lead to one of the bloodiest wars in history, destroying millions of families). Here is how capitalism poisons the family.
XII: Trauma and Tripping
Speaking of poisoned families, Jerry needs Stan Grossman (played by Larry Brandenburg) to make him take note of how his son is taking this kidnapping. Naturally, Scotty is traumatized and weeping in fear for his mother. Inept Jerry never thought about this; all he’s ever thought about is the money.
Another example of the tragicomic paradox is when Jean, her hands tied behind her and a hood over her head, arrives at a lakeside cabin in Moose Lake with Carl and Gaear. When she’s let out of the car, she frantically and spastically tries to run to freedom, her every fall and clumsy misstep getting laughs from Carl. Her awkwardness may be amusing to watch on the surface, but we shouldn’t forget that that awkwardness is a natural result of how terrified she is.
Indeed, she is going to die here.
An interesting juxtaposition of opposites occurs when we see frustrated Carl trying to fix the bad TV reception in the cabin. Preoccupation with superficial forms of entertainment from such things as the idiot box, as well as the aforementioned seeking of prostitutes, is a manic defence against the depression felt from loneliness. Next comes a scene with Marge and Norm in bed, not yet asleep, watching her functional TV.
Carl is yelling, cursing, and swearing about being stuck with “a goddamn mute” (Coen and Coen, page 56), his manic rage hiding his actual sadness, loneliness, and despair within. The happily married couple, however, look exhausted, as if depressed, though of course they aren’t. In this juxtaposition we see more examples of the intermingling of opposites.
Later that night, Marge is woken up by another phone call–not one about homicides this time, but one from an old friend, Mike Yanagita (played by Steve Park). In a sense, there is still a connection between these two calls. Mike feels dead, as it were, inside, a death of loneliness, a problem he hopes Marge, as personification of goodness and wholesomeness, can solve, just as she’s trying to solve the case of the triple homicide.
This loneliness of Mike’s is so extreme and full of desperation that when he meets with Marge in a restaurant, he unabashedly hits on her, an awkward moment amplified by her visible pregnancy and marriage. Again, on the surface, the awkwardness of the moment is comic, but also tragic as it reinforces the theme of cold loneliness, isolation, and desolation.
The triple homicide has heightened the tensions, pushing Carl to demand the entire ransom from Jerry. This tension exacerbates the contradictions between Jerry and Carl on the one hand (allegorically speaking, between the petite bourgeoisie and the fascists), and between Jerry and Wade on the other (i.e., between the middle and upper classes). Overall, the violence and financial strain are representative of how the contradictions of capitalism come to a head, as we see in Wade’s insistence on delivering the money himself to Carl, which as we know from the movie will end in disaster.
As I said above, the contradictions of class in Fargo do not involve any organized proletarian resistance. Allegorically speaking, it’s just different strata of the bourgeoisie struggling with each other. So when working class or lumpenproletariat characters are in conflict, they tend to fight among each other.
When Marge learns that the kidnappers (Carl, presumably) have phoned Shep Proudfoot, she can link him to the triple homicide. Being a parolee, Shep is in such a rage about the danger of being put back in jail that he finds Carl (while having sex with his second prostitute), beats not only him up, but also a neighbour, and he makes the prostitute run naked and terrified out of Carl’s room.
Now, in my allegory, Carl and Gaear personify fascism (the racism of which can be heard when Carl tells Shep, a Native American, to “smoke a fuckin’ peace pipe” [Coen and Coen, page 78]), but as small-time criminals, they–like Shep and the prostitute–are literally lumpenproletariat, people so far down the social ladder that Marx didn’t consider them to have any revolutionary potential. All they have is each other to take out their frustrations on.
XVI: Fargo and Neoliberalism
Fargo, recall, was made in 1996, five years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and therefore at “the end of history.” Socialism was deemed a failed experiment, and the notion of TINA has been the predominant ideology ever since (i.e., neoliberalism). This means that the poor have had no recourse to solve their problems; all they can do is fight with each other, as we see Shep do with Carl.
So in my allegory, we have personifications of the middle and upper classes, and of fascism (supported by the petite bourgeoisie, but including many disaffected members of the poor and working class, so in Carl and Gaear we have some overlap between lumpenproletariat and personifications of fascism), but not of organized labour (i.e., a communist movement). Imagine WWII being fought without the Soviet Union or Mao’s communists: different factions of the bourgeoisie (i.e., the Western Allies alone against the Nazis and Italian fascists, and the KMT alone against imperial Japan) would have simply eaten each other up in a bloodbath. The violence in Fargo (the triple homicide, the deaths of Jean, Wade, and Carl, etc.) can allegorically be seen to represent such an, at best, even more pyrrhic outcome in WWII.
It’s significant how, during the confrontation between Wade and Carl, grumpy Wade refers to Jean as his “damn daughter.” Oh, the love of a rich, cheapskate father, who’s clearly more annoyed at the loss of his money than at the danger of losing her.
That Carl fills him with bullets, and he fires at Carl, the bullet grazing the side of his face, is also significant: it symbolizes how capitalism destroys itself through its own contradictions. The bloody scar on Carl’s face is also symbolic of the kind of injury that gives rise to capitalistic and fascistic narcissism. Recall how enraged Hitler and the German nationalists were to learn of how their beloved country lost WWI, when they falsely believed they were winning…and to save face, they blamed Germany’s loss on the ‘treachery’ of the Jews and communists.
XVII: At the Breaking Point
Carl finds a place on the side of a highway in the middle of nowhere to hide a portion of the money he plans to keep from Gaear. The hiding place, in the snow by a barbed-wire fence, would be absurdly impossible to relocate after Carl’s going back to the lakeside cabin and giving Gaear his short-changed cut; for as it says twice in the script, as Carl is looking both ways from the hiding place, “A regular line of identical fence posts stretches away against unblemished white.” (Coen and Coen, pages 90-91)
The undifferentiated nature of this worst of hiding places, coupled with Carl’s facial wound, represents the cusp where the narcissistic Imaginary meets the traumatizing, indescribable Real. The extreme of his agitation from his injury, combined with his hopes of enjoying all that money for himself (as unlikely as he is to find and enjoy it, even if Gaear weren’t to kill him), emphasizes how close to utter madness Carl is…his extremes of pleasure and pain.
Jerry is, of course, at the breaking point himself. Having followed his father-in-law and discovered his bullet-ridden body, Jerry takes the corpse home in the trunk of his car, and he has also seen another victim of the rage of Carl’s itchy trigger finger, the parking lot attendant. It finally seems to be dawning on Jerry what a dreadful mistake he’s made in his ill-conceived plan to have Jean kidnapped to extort money from Wade.
One wonders, in this connection, when it began to dawn on all the petite bourgeois and working class Europeans, who’d supported fascism in the 1920s and 30s, what a bad mistake they’d made, too.
XVIII: Minnesota Not-so-nice
Jerry’s next conflict will be with Marge when she makes her second visit to his office to ask about any cars being unaccountably taken from his lot. In my allegory, this is the conflict between the libertarian-leaning, conservative petite bourgeoisie (lawless Jerry) and the more statist-oriented liberal (Marge).
In this scene, we also see the contrast between the superficial, phoney politeness of “Minnesota nice” and the rudeness that lies underneath when the pressure is on. There’s “no call to get snippy” with Marge, but Jerry’s “cooperating here.” (Coen and Coen, page 94) Just as the capitalist, when financial times are good, takes on a generous, congenial persona, he gets gruff, authoritarian, and outright fascist when times are bad.
XIX: More Violence
The conflict between Carl and Gaear comes to a head back in the lakeside cabin, when they argue over who gets to keep the Ciera. Gaear’s killing Carl with an axe, then disposing of the body in the wood chipper, can be seen to represent, in my allegory, such things as the violence of the Night of the Long Knives (especially the violent death of Gustav Ritter von Kahr, his body hacked to pieces with pickaxes), which included Nazis killing other Nazis; it could also represent all the attempts on Hitler’s life, resulting in the executions of the conspirators.
Yet another way one could allegorize all this mutual violence among different sections of the bourgeoisie, or of society in general as represented by Wade, Jerry, Carl, Gaear, Jean, and Shep, is to see it symbolizing the kind of social destabilization caused by the CIA’s use of mind control (MKUltra) to popularize LSD in the 1960s and weaponize the lumpenproletariat against class struggle for the benefit of keeping the ruling class in power. One need only think of the Unabomber and Charles Manson; some fear, in fact, that such violence could soon erupt again, amidst the current aggravation of neoliberal class conflict.
Of course, the film’s way of resolving all this conflict, violence, and mayhem is a liberal one, with Marge finding the Ciera at the lakeside cabin and arresting Gaear. She, as statist liberalism personified, gives the charmingly simple question to him: don’t you know there’s more to life than money?
Now, it’s easy to pretend that money isn’t all that important if you don’t have to struggle for it, as Marge, the successful police officer, doesn’t have to. And being happily married to a good man like Norm, as we see the two of them in bed together at the end of the film, means she doesn’t have to deal with the pain of loneliness and alienation that Jerry, Carl, Gaear (who’s so isolated, he hardly even speaks), Mike, and Scotty feel.
Marge may be the hero of the story, as well as the embodiment of all that’s good and wholesome, but as an officer of the law, she also works to serve and protect the system that gives rise to the contradictions that, in turn, give rise to people like Jerry, Wade, Carl, and Gaear. She has a happy family (soon to be one of three), but the system she protects has helped tear apart the Lundegaard family. Yet another example of the black/white paradox.
Jerry, through his incompetence and lack of ethical principles, has lost everything and is in jail. Wade, through his grumpy parsimony, has lost his life. Poor Scotty, who never did anyone any wrong (all he did was say a bad word, and for all we know, he probably was just drinking a milkshake at McDonald’s), may have inherited the family wealth, but without parents or a grandfather, he has no one to be there to take care of him.
His trauma, the trauma of a loneliness and desolation as cold as that horizonless, wintery white of Fargo‘s beginning, is a blackness that can only be overwhelming for him. This pain is what results from a world in which the bourgeoisie is left off the leash, with no organized labour to curb its excesses.
Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, Fargo, London, Faber and Faber, 1996