Sunday, March 6, 2011

Don't Make a Scene: Fargo

The Story:  February's over.  The valentines have long since gone to the trash-bin, a forgotten memory.  It's March, and the brief heating up of hearts has done nothing about the chill in the air.

It's still Winter (Still!)  And a lot of folks are still dealing with the ravages of weather. 

So, this odd one...from Fargo, the 1996 film by the Coen Brothers that was a return to form after the very expensive (financed by Joel Silver) Capra-esque (mixed with Sam Raimi and Leni Riefenstahl) flop that was The Hudsucker ProxyFargo is lean and mean, hearkening back to the brothers' creative roots, one of the more caustic "incredible mess" movies the Coens have written and directed.  But, it was also, ultimately, one of the sweetest—a study of contrasts between the forces of good and evil and everything in-between.***  For all the horrors typical of the Coens' savage sensibilities, it contains one of the most decent of the Coens' creations, the character of Marge Gunderson.

But, this scene isn't about Margie (although it is pivotal to the story and how she manages to crack the case).  It is one of those quirky "contained character bubble" scenes that feels like an insert in the film-proper—an aside, one of those scenes where you go "what was that all about?"—about two characters, one we see very little of and another who is only here for this scene.  But, it is part and parcel of the rhythm and cadence and off-beat humor of the Mid-west locale that the Coens construct ("you betcha") somewhere between the city of Fargo and the town of Brainerd.    

The Set-Up:  Strange doings in North Dakota.  A prominent businessman's daughter has been kidnapped.  Drive-by shootings have been occurring at an increasing rate.  And there seems to be a rash of incidents involving two men who are causing a lot of trouble in town.  Brainerd PD Officer Gary Olson (Cliff Rakerd) drives out to residence of Mr. Mohra (Bain Boehlke) to conductive an interview. 




It is a starky sunny day. We are cruising down a street of humble lookalike houses.

We pan right as we draw toward one house in particular. In its driveway a man in a hooded parka shovels snow.

He notices the approaching car and gives its driver a wave.

The driver is Gary, the Brainerd police officer. He gives a finger-to-the-head salute and pulls over.


Gary slams his door shut and the other man plants his shovel in the snow.

MAN How ya doin'?
GARY Mr. Mohra?
MAN Yah.
GARY Officer Olson.
MAN Yah, right-o.

The two men caucus the driveway without shaking hands and without standing particularly close. They stand stiffly, arms down at their sides and breath streaming out of their parka hoods. Each has an awkward leaning-away posture, head
drawn slightly back and chin tucked in, to keep his face from protruding into the cold.

MAN ... So, I'm tendin' bar there at Ecklund & Swedlin's last Tuesday and this little guy's drinkin' and he says, 'So where can a guy find some action - I'm goin' crazy down there at the lake.' And I says, 'What kinda action?' and he says, 'Woman action, what do I look like,' And I says 'Well, what do I look like, I don't arrange that kinda thing,' and he says, 'I'm goin' crazy out there at the lake' and I says, 'Well, this ain't that kinda place.'
GARY Uh-huh.

MAN So he says, 'So I get it, so you think I'm some kinda jerk for askin',' only he doesn't use the word jerk.
GARY I unnerstand.
MAN  And then he calls me a jerk and says the last guy who thought he was a jerk was dead now. So I don't say nothin' and he says, 'What do ya think about that?' So I says, 'Well, that don't sound like too good a deal for him then.'
GARY Ya got that right.
MAN And he says, 'Yah, that guy's dead and I don't mean a old age.' And then he says, 'Geez, I'm goin' crazy out there at the lake.'

GARY White Bear Lake?
MAN Well, Ecklund & Swedlin's, that's closer ta Moose Lake, so I made that assumption.
GARY Oh sure.

MAN So, ya know, he's drinkin', so I don't think a whole great deal of it, but Mrs. Mohra heard about the homicides out here and she thought I should call it in, so I called it in.

MAN End o' story.

GARY What'd this guy look like anyways?
MAN Oh, he was a little guy, kinda funny-lookin'.
GARY Uh-huh - in what way?
MAN Just a general way.

GARY Okay, well, thanks a bunch, Mr. Mohra. You're right, it's probably nothin', but thanks for callin' her in.
MAN Oh sure. They say she's gonna turn cold tomorrow.

GARY Yah, got a front movin' in.
MAN Ya got that right.


Words by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Pictures by Roger Deakins and Joel Coen (and Ethan Coen)

Fargo is available on MGM Home Entertainment.

* As opposed to, say, The French Connection, where the contrasts are in the bad guys' abilities to skate, while the "good guys" (who are morally questionable, as well) have procedural road-blocks.

** It must have appealed to Academy voters, as well.  It earned Frances McDormand a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar and a screenplay award for the Coens.

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