Sunday, September 20, 2009

Coen Classics: Cold Blooded Murder and Satirical Prose in 'Fargo'

In 2007's 'No Country for Old Men,' the Coen brothers established an elaborated plot involving a sadistic Javier Bardem tracking down Josh Brolin across the southern countryside. In 'Burn After Reading,' a comedic cluster of characters intertwine as a result of the misplacement of valuable CIA documentation. 'The Big Lebowski' portrays a comedic case of mistaken identity with the 'Dude.' And finally, in 1996's 'Fargo,' a man in Minnesota plots to stage a kidnapping for his wife so he can receive the ransom money from her rich father.

So what do all of these movies share in common? Of course, they are all touched with the same 'Coen Movie Magic.' But thematically, what is one thing that they all consist of?

When you watch a Coen brothers film, oftentimes you'll find that the two expert filmmakers like the realistic twist of deviously leaving a plotline unresolved. Not to spoil the ending of these movies, Coen endings are somewhat formulaic: a steadily growing climax topped with a conclusive reflection by one of the main characters. Those of you who have seen these three films, or any other Coen brothers film for that matter, think back to all those endings and try to give one example of a plotline that does not follow this curriculum. The meat of the story trails a plethora of sequential events, and then the narrative simply surveys them in one form or another. While this could be seen as repetitive, the Coen brothers manage to keep it fresh throughout each one of their projects with this same tone but applying it to very intriguing characters.

This definitely applies to 'Fargo.' Viewing 'Fargo' was a milestone in observance after subsequently seeing the other Coen films I listed above over the course of about a couple of years. What sets 'Fargo' apart's setting: a snowy wilderness that the Coen brothers could most relate to. They seem to like vacated spaces in their films as well, and that also has a profound impact on the narrative tone in 'No Country for Old Men.' I would have to say that 'Fargo' fits snugly in the Coen brothers library of classics, transitioning their intricate and spontaneous narrative style to a loosely-based true story. The best thing about 'Fargo,' atop everything else, was the satirical touch that the characters' Alaskan drawl brought to the scenarios of the film (Alaskan drawls in Minnesota? I might be missing something). Everyone sounded like a disinterested Sarah Palin in the midst of a cop drama, spewing 'Yeah's and 'Oh's in every convenient nuance. Subtle, but satisfyingly comedic.

One other touch that the Coen brothers keep unique to their style is spontaneous violence. This makes their films dangerously unpredictable in plotline, leading up to a twist so that there is no indication of preceding action. In plain English, this is enthrallingly realistic and comedic at the same time. Underlying visual cues, no---or very little---soundtrack in tense situations. Who could predict that Peter Stormare would come charging at Steve Buscemi with a large axe at 'Fargo's climax? That is how pro the Coen brothers are in masking epic and radical plot developments.

All in all, 'Fargo' is the pinnacle of Coen Charm. Excellent dialogue capped with edgy performances by William H. Macy and Buscemi, emphasized with isolating wintery wilderness. 'Fargo' makes for an unadulterated 'Home Alone' sequel: the infamous Coen take on domestic mishaps. Some filmmakers build on expectation as an establishment for movie appeal. The Coen brothers have this appeal for the sheer unpredictability of their films. The question for other movies is always "What did I come away with?"

Alternatively, the question for Coen movies: "What didn't I know I would come away with?"



  1. You can add Raising Arizona to this list. The Coens are classic.

  2. Indeed, the Coen brothers do repeat themselves, but it never gets old.
    I didn't, however, think No Country For Old Men deserved best picture of the year but thats opinion.

  3. Cool blog/article! You might have to update this article with the upcoming release of A Serious Man. Early reviews have been glowing, most of them saying it could be their most personal film to date.

  4. Yes, recently saw the trailer for that! Looks very intriguing...

  5. As a stranger wandering through the vast interwebs looking for a picture from Fargo, I stumbled across your article, read it, and felt compelled to add two comments to help in your understanding of this film...

    1) The 'Alaskan' accent you refer to is, in fact, more recognized as a northern Minnesota twang. Being from Brainerd myself, it's somewhat surprising to hear Sarah "You betcha, by golly" Palin overuse this regional dialect. It's a very prevalent drawl in Canada, Minnesota, North Dakota, and reaching further north, into Alaska. She's probably playing it up quite a bit.

    2) 'Fargo' is not a true story. No further explanation needed. It just never happened. This wasn't revealed for many years after the films release, most likely in response to ACTUAL TRUE STORY of a Japanese woman who traveled to northern Minnesota to find the briefcase full of missing millions. She died in the woods.

    All of that being said, I enjoyed your article. I love the Coen brothers, I agree with a lot of your observations, particularly their spot-on use of deserted landscapes and minimal background music to give the movies a sense of reality. Nobody does dark comedy better than the Coen's because they manage to do equal parts dark and comedy. Anyway, thanks for letting me rant here!