“For what? For a little money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that?”
Police officer Margie Gunderson (Frances McDormand) asks that question to a criminal in the last five minutes of the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film Fargo. As the story concludes, this question explains everything that we have just seen. The first time watching Fargo can be perplexing. It’s entertaining, weird, funny, and exciting, but we never really know what the movie is about until Margie asks this question. That means that Fargo takes at least two viewings (I just watched it for the eighth time) in order to understand its purpose. It also means that if you haven’t seen it, I haven’t given anything away regarding the story by telling you about this question at the end, but I am sparing you some of the perplexity of wondering what the movie is about.
The movie opens at a bar in Fargo, ND where we see three men (played by William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare) planning a very bizarre heist that is not sensible if money is the truest motive. Jerry Lunegaard (Macy) demands to have his wife kidnapped so that he can collect the ransom money from his wealthy father-in-law. The gangsters he consorts with know it’s a stupid idea and that its risks highly outweigh their possible monetary gain, yet they agree. Why? Because they don’t know that there’s more to life than a little money.
Throughout the course of the film, we see Jerry wandering through the details of life, trying to go about his everyday business while at the same time trying to make sure everything goes as planned with the plot, and fighting with his fellow criminals when it doesn’t. Through these scenes, we see that his family and his job are not important to him. While Carl Showalter (Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Stormare) carry out the plan, they do so with no regard for Jerry’s demands, for the lives of others involved their heist, for each other, or even for their own lives. Although they are trying to attain a great deal of money, they don’t even seem to care about the money itself. They’re motivated by ignorance, purposelessness, and hopelessness. The money might be nice, but they do what they do because they don’t know that there is more to life than a little money.
Greed is not the primary characteristic of the evil characters in Fargo despite the fact that their conversations all center around money. Each of these characters is marked mostly by apathy. The results of this apathy are grisly, monstrous crimes against innocent people and against each other. The story’s hero, Marge Gunderson, is not heroic in any of the usual senses of the word. Yes, she’s a police officer who cracks the case, but much more than that, she is the polar opposite of everything represented by the three co-conspirators. She is the story’s hero because she enjoys life, because she is a loving wife and soon-to-be mother, because she’s the smartest cop on the force, and because she does her work passionately. She’s the hero because she is one of the funniest people you could ever meet, because she loves life, and because she genuinely cares about people. Because of this, she recognizes what nobody else does (including most first-time viewers), regarding the motive for the crimes. She discerns that they don’t know that there is more to life than a little money.
The dichotomy that the Coen Brothers create between the love of life and the disregard of life makes Fargo profound. Its message (that the people on the first side, like Marge, can make the world a wonderful place to live in, but people on the second side can make it very frightening) is sent through a very twisted version of the classic good vs. evil tradition. Its creative style and delightful (though often very dark) sense of humor and its reminiscence of 1940s film noir make it highly entertaining.
As harrowing as it is, watching what happens when people don’t believe that there is more to life than a little money is a challenging and rewarding experience. It reminds us, who believe that there is great purpose and meaning in life, that by being people that love life, we can share that love with others. When we share it with those marred by apathy, we share with them that there is a lot more to life than a little money, and in sharing that we are empowered to give them what may prevent much future evil that they previously had been capable of.
Stumble Alert: Fargo is filled with material that many Christians will find offensive (graphic violence, two scenes involving prostitution, and a great deal of profanity). Fortunately, this is a rare film that isn’t hurt by being edited for television. So if you haven’t seen it or were uncomfortable with what you saw the first time, seek out the film on an edited TV channel and discover the greatness of this film.
Watch Fargo: The film can be rented unedited through any source of download or streaming rentals. I am unaware of any edited TV channel that will be airing Fargo in the near future.