Friday, May 6, 2016

Reading the Coens: "Fargo"

The Coen brothers are not Christian artists, but they are masters of their craft. And, while they appear to pay close attention to every detail in their stories and use every subtlety to advance their story, like most postmodern artists, they avoid being too specific about the meaning in their films. So, even though I am bringing my own preconceptions to their work that sees things likely unintended by them, I celebrate truth wherever I find it.

Fargo (1996)

“I need unguent.”

This is the film that famously claimed to be a true story, only without the validity—or any similarity to any real event—that one expects from such a claim. That said, it is a story that rings true. Tragically and horrifically true. And it all starts with a pathetic man and his poor choices compounding interest.

There are despicable, evil men in Fargo, but Jerry Lundegaard has them beat. Even though the two men (Showalter and Grimsrud) he hires to kidnap his wife are whoring, thieves and killers, Jerry comes off worse. He has apparently embezzled from his father-in-law, for whom he works. Rather than face the consequences for his wrong doing, he schemes of other ways to get even more money to cover his crime. One is legitimate, but a reach. The easier one is to get his wife kidnapped, solicit a huge ransom from her father, and pay the kidnappers a paltry portion.

But, as Solomon warned his son:

“If sinners say, ‘…we shall find all precious goods, we shall fill our houses with plunder. Throw in your lot among us. We will all have one purse.’ My son, do not walk in the way with them; hold back your foot from their paths, for their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood.
…But these men lie in wait for their own blood; they set an ambush for their own lives. Such are the ways of everyone who is greedy for unjust gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.” –Proverbs 1:10, 13-16, 18,19

And that’s pretty much the story of the film for Jerry. The kidnappers botch the job up pretty bad. They leave a trail of witnesses around the state and kill a few people in commission of their crime. And that alerts the police to the crime that was supposed to happen quietly with no one hurt. Evil breeds evil and by the end of things more people are killed and the kidnappers are dead or caught. Jerry himself has to go on the run and is arrested. So, in an effort to avoid the shame of a crime of greed, he ends up responsible for multiple deaths including the mother of his only child, Scott.

It is in his interaction with that son that we really see how much of a monster Jerry is. He isn’t an abuser. He isn’t that passionate about anyone else. He is completely self-absorbed and absent as a father. After the kidnapping he initially is so caught up in his scheme that he forgets all about Scott. When he finally is reminded that he is a father, he has the following interaction:

JERRY: How ya doin' there, Scotty?
SCOTT: Dad! What're they doing? Wuddya think they're doin' with Mom?
JERRY: It's okay, Scotty. They're not gonna want to hurt her any. These men, they just want money see.
SCOTT: What if - what if sumpn goes wrong?
JERRY: No, no, nothin's goin' wrong here. Grandad and I, we're - we're makin' sure this gets handled right.
SCOTT: Dad, I really think we should call the cops.
JERRY: No! We can't let anyone know about this thing! We gotta play ball with these guys - you ask Stan Grossman, he'll tell ya the same thing!
SCOTT: Yeah, but -
JERRY: We're gonna get Mom back for ya, but we gotta play ball. Ya know, that's the deal. Now if Lorraine calls, or Sylvia, you just say that Mom is in Florida with Pearl and Marty...

But the real story kicks in about an hour into the film. That is when we meet our heroine, Marge Gunderson. She is the chief of police of Brainerd, Minnesota, the one in charge of the investigation into the murders Showalter and Grimsrud commit on the highway when they are pulled over after the kidnapping. She is a smart cop. She figures out what happened from the clues, clues other cops overlook.

Her only weakness, in fact, is her contented goodness. Like Jerry Lundegaard, she is married. But unlike him, she is happily married. She and her husband are expecting their first child. He is officially a painter, but more of a stay-at-home husband. They are not well off, but they are “doing pretty good.” The film does a good job of showing us their comfortable, loving relationship. They are normal people. And that is the problem for her investigation. She can see monsters. She knows that evil exists without understanding it. But she overlooks the normal-looking evil.

When her investigation quickly leads her to Lundegaard, her interview with him is short. She takes him at his word never questioning his answers or even less the idea that he might be involved. It takes an uncomfortable reunion with a high school classmate—one where he awkwardly comes on to the happily married, very pregnant Marge –before she sees what is happening. It takes the seemingly normal classmate lying to her for her to see Lundegaard’s deception. After that things proceed quickly.

Marge Gunderson is a saint in the Coen Brother’s imaginary universe. She is the embodiment of virtue. She is immune to the source of evil in both the Coen’s world and our own—the love of money. And yet she is also a heroine who is not sheltered nor ignorant of the evil in the world. She fearlessly hunts down evil men and confronts them with justice. Even when she doesn’t understand them. Her words to Grimsrod after single-handedly catching him disposing of his dead partner:

“So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well. I just don't understand it.”

She is a picture of the virtue that Paul describes in his letter to Timothy:

“But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”

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