Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Fargo -- more to life than money

Director: Joel Coen, 1996.

Jerry walks into a low-class bar and meets two sketchy hoodlums. He's late; they're not happy. He wants them to kidnap his wife. The ransom will be paid by his father-in-law, or so he assumes, and this will get him out of the financial problems he is in. So starts the Coen's gray tragic crime thriller.

This first scene is the only one that actually takes place in Fargo, North Dakota. Most of the film is set in either Minneapolis, where Jerry lives and works, or in the cold, bleak winterscape of Brainerd, Minnesota, where the kidnappers hide. Big city, small town, the contrast in cultures is huge.

Long before the Coen brothers scooped up multiple Oscars for their very bleak No Country for Old Men, they won their first Oscar for the screenplay here. Moreover, Frances McDormand picked up the Best Actress Oscar (beating out Kristin Scott Thomas in the 9-Oscar winner, The English Patient). Indeed, McDormand is the wife of Joel Coen and a frequent star in his movies (e.g., Burn After Reading).

William H. Macy plays Jerry Lundegaard, a wimp of a man who works for his father-in-law as sales manager at a car dealership. His financial troubles are never explained, but they are significant enough that his only hope is a "simple" criminal activity. But when is crime ever simple? Steve Buscemi is terrific as Carl Showalter, one of the two crooks, partnered with Peter Skomare as the almost silent but trigger-happy Gaear Grimsrud. When the kidnapping occurs and they are fleeing Minneapolis, they are pulled over by a police car and the end result is a triple homicide. Crime leads to crime.

This first act highlights the terrible cost of crime. Crime creates a desperate downward spiral towards destruction. The book of Proverbs describes this descent in graphic terms (Prov. 1:18-19; 2:13-22). Once on the slope it is hard to get off. Jerry's desperation led to the out-of-control events and unneccessary bloodshed and loss of life. Better to never get on this slope. Once there, the irresistible pull of gravity.

It is not until about the second act that we meet Police Chief Marge Gunderson (McDormand). Seven-months pregnant, she is a delight, a breath of "Minnesota-nice" fresh air. With the mid-west colloquialisms ("Yah" and "You betcha!"), she is so friendly it is hard to accept she is the Brainerd chief of police. But her small-town charm hides a big-city intellect. She is sharp as a tack. She gently disagrees with one of her officers when called to the scene of the homicides, but with a walk-through the crime scene, she describes the general events to a tee, before catching the morning sickness feeling.

Marge contrasts sharply with the criminals, including city-slicker Jerry. All three of the criminals are driven by money. Jerry's predicament precipates the crime spree, but the greed of the two kidnappers propels it along. But Marge is different. She tells her husband, "There's more to life than a little money, you know." How true! Money is a commodity. It is not a source of happiness or life. It is necessary, not a dependency. The apostle Paul tells Timothy that "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Tim. 6:10). Money itself is not the problem; our love of money is.

Marge's simple life is illustrative of her aphorism. She dines at a buffet restaurant with her loving husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch, Things We Lost in the Fire). She lives in a small home. But when awakened in the dead of night, Norm gets up to make her breakfast sacrificing his sleep. Here is love. She enjoys the simple pleasures of life: being with someone who loves her, watching TV, eating food, drinking coffee. She does not need an excess of money to be happy.

Despite the grim events of the film, Coen adds a strange character to the mix: Mike Yanagita (Steve Park). An old school friend of Marg's, he calls her out of the blue and they meet up in Minneapolis when she is there investigating the crimes. He seems to have no real reason to be in the movie. He does not move the narrative forward. Yet, he offers a foil to Marg's family situation.

Mike's life is empty and lonely without family. He appears successful, but it is shallow success. He has no depth. He has no life. He is depressed and looking for relationship. Seen alongside Mike, Marg has everything that is important. She has Norm, a homely and dumpy guy but one who is her true love. She has a baby about to be born. She has a family.

How often we envy what others have. Fargo reminds us that there is more to life than money. There is family. We must count our own blessings. For most of us, God has been more than good. And his mercy and compassion to each of us is new every morning (Lam. 3:22-23).

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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