The Use of Characters and Film Editing in Fargo

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The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen, are American filmmakers recognized for their unique storytelling style. Despite relying on major studios for funding and distribution, the Coen brothers have remained true to their roots as independent filmmakers. They have defied mainstream and commercial clichés, and held fast to a unique, idiosyncratic vision. Their work makes itself known not merely for their names in the opening credits, but what can only be described as that distinct ‘Coen brothers feeling’, made possible with imaginative camerawork, a vibrant visual style, fresh dialogue, and lavishly formulated characters. 

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Their movies have dealt with a wide array of subjects, and any one of their films typically cannot be classified under any one genre, instead of being mixtures of anything from tragedy, comedy, screwball, western, drama, crime, or neo-noir. The general gist many of their films seem to have in common could be summed up as ‘bad things happening to weird people’. Several of their films also contain severe lessons about morality. In the Coen Brother’s universe, morality and consequences of immorality are a major focus.

The Coen brothers produced a number of films, with their most notable successes including O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men. Their immediate follow up to Fargo, The Big Lebowski, flopped at the box office but would enjoy another form of success as one of cinematic history’s most notorious and popular cult classics. 2008 and 2009 respectively saw the release of their films Burn After Reading and A Serious Man. Burn After Reading, similar to Fargo, concerns a blackmail plot gone south. However, the perpetrators in this case are not inept hired thugs, but rather ordinary people attempting to take advantage of a fired CIA analyst. A Serious Man is a period retelling of the Biblical story of Job, somewhat inspired by the Coen brothers’ own upbringing as Jews living in suburban Minnesota.

The basis of this essay will be in depth textual analysis of the films Fargo (1996), Burn After Reading (2008), and A Serious Man (2009). I became interested in watching Coen films after watching Fargo, and noticed that many of their films contain an almost misanthropic style of dark humor. I became interested in understanding each of their films and the thematic relationships between them. I wanted to explore the filmic techniques used to communicate these themes. After some research, I found that the Coen brothers are widely acknowledged for their ingenious style of mixed-genre filmmaking and unconventional storytelling methods.

In seeking to answer my research question, I consulted a range of sources beyond the films themselves. This included collections of interviews with the directors, books and compilations of essays written by film critics and journalists, accounts as relayed by associates of the directors, and original screenplays. These sources have led me to the conclusion that the Coen brothers’ unique style of dark humor contributes to the development of a moral universe which accounts for even the slightest immoral action, most evident in films such as Fargo, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man.

In these films, morality and consequences are hardly situational, but rather absolute, uncompromising, and severe. This brutal definition of morality is reminiscent of the Old Testament, and characters, whether they could be defined as “good” or “bad”, are without much exception made to suffer for the wrong choices they ultimately make. The hows and whys of characters’ decisions are not given much consideration in the context of the story-all that matters is that once they have made their choice, their fate is sealed, and justice is unforgiving. Even sympathetic characters are helpless to escape their fate in the merciless moral universe manufactured by the Coen brothers. And in the rare film where the villains go unpunished, one message is clear above all others- life can, at times, seem preposterous and meaningless, and the audience is expected to grieve at the failings of whatever higher power allows such undeserved suffering.

This essay endeavors to demonstrate how the Coen brothers’ use of dark humor contributes to the conveyance of messages about morality, specifically the idea of moral absolutism, and to identify moral themes present throughout their works. The thesis of this essay is that The Coen brothers use dark humor to portray morality as absolute and uncompromising. In their movies, harm generally befalls both the just and the unjust, based on their actions. Evil and immorality rarely goes unpunished. Likewise, protagonists and major characters usually ensure their downfall with a series of poor choices or a single immoral decision.

Moral virtue is defined by Aristotle as a disposition to behave in the right manner and as a mean between extremes of deficiency and excess, which are vices. According to Aristotle, one learns moral virtue primarily through habit and practice as opposed to instruction or reasoning. To be virtuous is to have the correct attitude toward both pain and pleasure. To be unbalanced in either direction is dangerous. In the face of danger, to suffer excessive fear would make one a coward, but to fail to suffer sufficient fear in the same situation would make one rash and equally foolish (Amadio).

Moral realism, also known as moral objectivism, states that concepts such as moral facts and moral values literally exist, and that they exist objectively and independent of anyone’s perceptions of them, or anyone’s beliefs, attitudes or feelings about and toward them (Philosophy Basics). The moral realist argues that moral sentences are true by virtue of describing moral facts which allow the sentences to exist and apply to situations (Ethics Unwrapped).

Moral relativism contends that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others (Ethics Unwrapped). Essentially, moral relativism is the idea that there is no universal or absolute set of moral principles. Moral relativism exists as the polar opposite of moral absolutism, a concept which states that for every moral and ethical situation there is a single correct response (Philosophy Basics).

“Actions have consequences!” spits Larry Gopnik, mild-mannered physics professor and ill-fated protagonist of 2009’s A Serious Man, as he addresses a difficult foreign exchange student who has attempted to bribe him for a passing test grade (A Serious Man). And so it is the plain truth of any Coen brothers film- actions will be met with consequences. At times, these consequences may seem outrageously unfair, disproportionately harsh considering the offenses they appear to be addressing, especially when directed against sympathetic characters, or those characters, who in any other work, in the eye of any other artist, would be deemed entirely forgivable for their sin. In this particular scene, which takes place inside of Larry’s office, the main character seems wholly aware of the absolute moral truth of the situation-that Clive’s attempt at bribery, surreptitiously leaving behind on his professor’s desk an envelope containing nearly $3000, is wrong. 

But even as Larry tries to impress upon Clive that actions have moral consequences, not just “often”, but “always”, the obstinate student’s terse and gymnastic verbal maneuvering challenges the authority and control Larry has over the events happening in his own office. Clive directly challenges Larry’s claim that his actions are obvious and his intentions clear, and asserts that only he himself has any idea what his actions and intentions were. He further redefines Larry’s “interpretation” as nothing more than “mere surmise” (A Serious Man). In fact, what little knowledge Larry has of his absurd world, in which he truth always eludes him, is based on mere surmise (Adams). In this especially telling scene, the uncertainty principle Larry has been teaching his students is flipped back on him.

The first thing viewers see in Fargo is a title card, declaring that what follows is a “true story”, based on “events that took place in Minnesota in 1987”. This overt misdirect (read: blatant lie), establishes a story dependent upon deception and the elusive nature of truth (Luhr). The directors reasoned that by presenting the film to audiences as a true story, they would be more willing to accept the outrageous sequence of events than if it were presented as a fictional crime drama. In Fargo, the directors’ characteristic dark humor serves to underscore a blend of tragedy and hilarity. In what is perhaps the definitive expression of the pair’s darkly ambivalent attitude toward American culture, Fargo sets small-town Americana as the staging ground for an expression of the human capacity for error, immorality, and evil (Luhr).

The characters in Fargo are unapologetically human and ridiculously pitiful. Almost everyone in the story, at some point or another, winds up in a conspicuously low position-either physically, psychologically, morally, spiritually, or all of the above. Very little of the humor isn’t predicated on some version of the notion that people are basically idiots. Even Marge Gunderson, inarguably the film’s most capable character in every regard, is nonetheless simultaneously portrayed as ridiculous as she is serious. 

She consistently demonstrates far more practical intelligence than any of the film’s male characters, yet she is no more immune than any other character from being portrayed somewhat unflatteringly. When she is first introduced, responding to the discovery of a triple homicide perpetrated on-screen by the more brutal of the film’s hapless pair of criminals, she appears as a “pregnant, puking butterball wrapped in a navy-blue puffer jacket” (Nathan). Unassuming, but wickedly sensible, her words and actions are implicitly contrasted with those of a more typical male cop. 

For example, Marge’s lightning quick analysis of the crime scene is not accompanied by the standard dramatic music, silent punctuation, a close-up, or a reaction shot (Conard). This image of Marge, examining the frozen, bloody corpses prostrate in the snow, interweaves concepts of violent death, gentle concern, the law, and the nation. As a comic figure, she walks funny, she talks funny, and constantly surprises by violating the conventions of the crime movie. Marge is a powerful figure whose potency is kept in check by a combination of the film’s overall ironic tone and it’s orchestration of comic incidents. Throughout the film, she is continually associated with food and eating. 

She wants to catch the criminal, but nothing gets in the way of her lunch. What could be seen as Marge gracefully integrating both her personal commitments to her husband and personal health with her professional commitments to law and order, could also be interpreted as a noticeable lack of urgency on the part of the protagonist to find the people the audience know is responsible for not only the murder of three people, but also a kidnapping. And as Jean Lundegaard’s life remains in mortal peril, the only person capable of saving her seems to be in no particular hurry to do so. Marge also seems to be, in her own mind at least, inhabiting of some sort of Dick and Jane fantasy world where all of the police officers and parents are automatically good people. 

Through her lecture towards Gaear, as he sits in the back of her patrol vehicle following his capture, she demonstrates a total inability to even so much as grasp the possibility of such remorseless and uninhibited evil. From her point of view, it is simply unfathomable. In Fargo, there is no confusing right and wrong, good guys and bad guys. The villains are indisputably repulsive human beings in character, intention, and deed. 

There is no argument for moral justification on their behalf. Even when not compared to such foul individuals, Marge has no trouble at all appearing as a virtually flawless character, the heart and soul of small-town American peacekeeping in an otherwise dismal and misanthropic narrative. Her linguistic modesty becomes a trademark of her quiet confidence and lack of need to exhibit her status (Conard). This trait is evident in the scene where she is interviewing one of the young prostitutes recently hired by the criminals she is pursuing, or when she sensibly and gently corrects her partner on the origin of the license plates, “I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Lou”. 

In contrast, just about all of the male characters who repeatedly assert their importance end up dead or in jail, while the understated Marge ultimately emerges as the hero. Jerry Lundegaard, for example, is as weak and as ineffectual as he is immoral and deceptive. Jerry fits Aristotle’s description of the incontinent (Conard). He is a man who is aware of his actions and the incorrect nature of his actions, and perhaps he even feels some measure of guilt or shame about what he’s doing. Merely imagining what respectable people would think of his poor decisions seems to be enough to induce his shame. But at the end of the day, Jerry only does what he feels is in the best interests of himself. 

Coming home to find that Jean has been taken, Jerry rehearses his bogus dismay about Jean’s kidnapping before phoning Wade-attempting to convey both masculine calm and a suitably concerned demeanor. Jerry’s hopeless posturing is a pathetic and ultimately futile attempt to appear authoritative and in control of himself and the situation, as his father-in-law quickly snatches what he believes to be control of the situation away from Jerry. Not once does he visibly demonstrate any genuine concern for his wife’s safety in the possession of a pair of violent criminals. When speaking to the thugs, it never occurs to him that he might need to make it explicitly clear in his instructions that his wife is not to be harmed. 

So he apparently has no regard for her safety or well-being, so focused he is on simply making off with his father-in-law’s ransom money. He displays a similar lack of concern for his only son, Scotty, who is obviously distraught over the situation. Standing stiffly by the doorway of his son’s bedroom, as his son sits on his bed with tears in his eyes and his body facing away from his father, Jerry makes no real attempts to reassure Scotty, or comfort him, or even offer as much as any sort of physical affection or attempt to understand what he’s feeling. His main goal in confronting his son is to pressure him into keeping silent and not to tell anyone that his mother has been kidnapped. Scotty’s fears about his mother’s safety are likely not at all assuaged following this discourse. Scheming and self-serving, Jerry perpetuates his lies regardless of the human cost, even to those closest to him.

The villains in Fargo are fundamentally ridiculous. Carl Showalter tries desperately to present himself at all times as if he is in control of the situation, but in reality, he is barely in control of himself. To see someone behave this way is the essence of comedy because it shows how one is entirely at the mercy of their bodily reactions despite claims of higher consciousness. 

This pitiful crook is completely out of control, manifested in the contortions and distortions of his ferrety body as well as his verbal attempts to compensate for his many peculiarities and failings. Shep Proudfoot beats him savagely and Wade Gustafson shoots him in the face. Crude and profane, Showalter is a walking contradiction to the notion of the mind controlling the body. In contrast to Showalter’s endless stream of babbling and profanity, Gaear Grimsrud is his mute associate, who expresses himself with brutal and remorseless actions rather than verbosity. Gaear’s casual propensity for physical violence is indicative of an indulgent and unrestricted sense of morality.

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