True crime stories are almost like horror stories in how they dwell upon the ways in which thieves, killers and deceivers prey upon the clueless, decent and innocent. It makes us recoil more than delight in the chase, and that very reaction is something the Coen Brothers zero in on with a kind of low-key ruthlessness in their Minnesota masterpiece, Fargo.
Minneapolis, 1987. Sad-sack car sales man Jerry Lundegaard has dug himself into as serious financial hole with a fraudulent loan he needs to cover. His wife is loaded but his father-in-law has no use for Jerry and certainly won’t bail him out. So in desperation, Jerry heads to Fargo, North Dakota and hires two thugs to kidnap his own wife. The idea is Jerry gets his father-in-law to pay the ransom and then Jerry splits the ransom with the kidnappers. But Jerry is no criminal mastermind, and his partners in crime are a little too trigger-happy for this thing to go cleanly. Pretty soon, bodies pile up outside the sleepy town of Brainerd, Minnesota. Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson, who is still on the job despite being seriously pregnant, investigates the killings in what is easily the biggest story to hit Brainerd since Paul Bunyan and his ox created the 10,000 lakes. As Marge works to connect the murders in Brainerd to the Lundegaard kidnapping, Jerry’s simple criminal plan continues to spill blood, and the big question becomes not if Marge can put an end to all of this mayhem, but what will become of her when she confronts hardened killers face to face.
What really sets apart this entry into the Coen Brother’s library of dark crime stories (apart from the fact that it says it’s based on a true story, but isn’t really) is its setting. The Coens mined their Minnesota upbringing for this, and used exaggerated versions of the regional Scandinavian accent as well as the “Minnesota nice” culture to create a story where the crimes at hand seem doubly monstrous, given their victims mild manners, easy courtesy and aversion to confrontation. For those unfamiliar with Minnesota culture, Fargo’s take on it might at first seem like mockery. But the more we dwell within it, the more we realize that Minnesota nice is as much about genuine family values and politeness as it is about using superficial charm to mask a deep-seated tradition for backhanded criticism and passive aggression. There is a nastiness within the humble folk of Fargo that makes us wonder, maybe it’s not so impossible to think that a crime like the Lundegaard kidnapping could happen here, after all.
And that, in turn, is what makes Marge Gunderson, our protagonist stand out so marvelously. She’s a supreme avatar for the Coen’s take on northern plains culture, but as we see with her sweet home life with her simple husband, she’s a loving, supportive wife. At the office, she’s a deeply capable police officer. And in all things, she truly is kind and courteous and decent. But she is underestimated at others’ peril. Her Minnesota nice behavior doesn’t make her a simpleton or a pushover. And anybody who can investigate a multiple homicide while that close to their delivery date is as tough as they come.
But the deeper Marge gets into her case, the more she is forced to confront people who simply don’t have her values, her moral compass. And the more she see this, the more she’s blinkered by it. At one point in the story, she must travel to Minneapolis and while there reconnects with an old classmate, Mike Yanagita. What follows is a deeply awkward scene in which Mike makes a barrage of increasingly aggressive, cringey and pathetic passes at Marge, ultimately concocting a story about a dead wife he never had to gain Marge’s sympathies. When Marge later learns that Mike is actually living with his folks and battling mental problems. Marge is bowled over, because she can’t imagine being lied to so brazenly. Our more cynical ears hear Mike’s please for what they are, and it makes us worry a bit about Marge. She’s put off my Mike, sure, but only by his over-eager advances. She can’t see through his lies at all. And if a guy like Mike doesn’t ping on her radar, how is she going to fare against the hardened killers she’s on a collision course with?
That gets answered in the movie’s climax, in a moment of truth for the ages. Marge finally gets to the kidnappers hideout as the kidnappers turn on each other and as she approaches the cabin, she spots one the kidnappers feeding his slain accomplice into a wood chipper to dispose of the body. Surely nothing in Marge’s life ever prepared her for this, and suddenly, we are given a split-second of complete terror as Marge announces herself repeatedly over the sound of the chipper. Eventually, the killer, Gaear, will hear her, and what then? He mulched his partner over how to split their ransom money. What’s he going to do to poor Marge?
Of course, Marge is sterner than anybody gives her credit for, and she swiftly collars Gaear without backup. She even lectures her suspect back in the patrol car about how there’s more to life than money, and it’s a hilarious tonic to the intense finale, because if there is one thing a guy like Gaear is not going to be moved by, it’s the values homily of somebody like Marge. But as the story fades to the white of a Minnesota winter, we see that maybe Marge didn’t prevail because she’s a badass or she had the bigger gun. She prevailed because lives up to a curious stereotype in all the ways that matter, and proves that yeah, all evil needs to win is for good people to do nothing. But luckily for the rest of us, there are good people. And they are often where we least expect them.