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Cities in Cinema 3: Fargo

By John P. Houghton.

Minnesota (not so) Nice

The Coen Brothers’ Fargo is a tribute to the urban civility and urbane manners of their home state.

If the city in Gomorrah act as a cancer, the city in Fargo is a cure. The Coen Brothers’ 1996 Scandi-noir-ha-ha comedy features two hitmen who have been paid to stage the kidnapping and ransom of Jean Lundegaard, the daughter of a local businessman.

The job should be straightforward. Carl and Gaear (played by “funny lookin’” Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare channelling a frost-bitten Anton Chigurh) are experienced and cold-hearted criminals.

Yet they are frustrated and ultimately defeated by the power of place. Specifically, by the mild manners and stoic determination of the North Star State. Carl ends up in a wood chipper, Gaear in the back of a police car, being gently lectured by pregnant police chief Marge.

“There’s more to life than a little money, don’t you know that?” she asks, “And here you are. And it’s a beautiful day”.

Frances McDormand’s Marge is the embodiment of ‘Minnesota Nice’, the “stereotypical behaviour of people from Minnesota to be courteous, reserved, and mild-mannered.”

Beneath that polite exterior is a rugged determination to do things the right and proper way or, for some people, a passive aggressive and emotionally stunted stubbornness.

This characteristic is fitting of a place with Scandinavian roots. In Garrison Keillor’s telling of the state’s foundation myth, while every other group of new arrivals settled on the fertile coasts of the US, the Swedes and Norwegians continued inland.

On and on they trudged, until they found a place with cold, hard earth, forests filled with bears, and brutally cold winters. Finally, somewhere they could call home.

From the start, the Coens root the film in the terroir of their home state. The characters’ names are Scandinavian and native American (Minnesota derives from a Sioux language name for the Mississippi river). They watch the Gophers play ice hockey, choose between meatballs and torsk for lunch, and express anger by scraping ice from their windscreens more forcefully than normal. Jean’s teenage son has a picture of Whitesnake of his bedroom wall, alongside a poster of “The Accordion King”.

That culture of calm reserve, of resolute normalcy acts like an antibody the invading malignant force of Carl and Gaear. In one of the climactic scenes of the film, Carl is confronted by the Jean’s father.

Instead of doing things by the book, and quickly handing over the cash for her safe return, her father provokes a Clint Eastwood-style showdown. In his eyes, the kidnapping is not just illegal. It has violated the laws of common decency and offended his family honour.

“What is with you people???” Carl rages, utterly dumbfounded by these strange and unfamiliar codes.

He can’t say he wasn’t warned. Fargo is full of alerts and alarms, from the road signs warning drivers of storms and snowdrifts to the advert for Miller Beer that can be seen behind Marge as radios the police station from her car. “As if this town wasn’t cold enough…” is the cautionary legend.

In one comedic vignette toward the end of the film, a local resident is shovelling away a huge pile of snow from his driveway as he speaks to a policeman on the trail of the missing woman. When the conversation ends, the man looks to the sky and states passively: “it looks like it’s gonna turn cold tomorrow”.

Carl and Gaear do nearly freeze but it is not the weather that defeats them; it is the spirit of stoic resolution and civic pride of place that proves their undoing.

John P. Houghton is a writer and adviser on neighbourhoods, cities and social exclusion and is the author with Prof. Anne Power of Jigsaw Cities. He tweets at @metlines

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 31st, 2017.