The screen shows a flat, empty road from a very low angle, a torn tyre lying on it like a piece of junk sculpture. Then the towers of a city in the distance; then a set of ramshackle houses; a pasture and a farmhouse; the white screen of a drive-in; a field full of oil pumps. A drawling voice, all wide vowels and unclosed consonants, starts to philosophise: ‘The world is full of complainers, and the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee ... Something can always go wrong ... What I know about is Texas, and down here you’re on your own.’ These are the opening moments of Blood Simple, Ethan and Joel Coen’s first movie, released in 1983, and they look like an agenda, an announcement of work to come. They look that way only now, though, when we have seen the later films; learned that the appearance of raw and gritty realism in that first movie was deceptive. We were never in America, only ‘America’, a place full of stories about itself, none the less mythological because historical reality every now and then manages to catch up with it, or incorporate a piece of its gory or flamboyant action. The ‘down here’ in the voice-over now sounds like a giveaway, since it implies an awareness of other places, even an anxiety about them, about the way Texas may look from a different region. Of course there’s boasting in the claim too, a pride in the fact that chainsaw massacres, for instance, don’t happen just anywhere.
Since then the Coen brothers have given us a dusty South-West (Raising Arizona, 1987); an unnamed Thirties Prohibition city that would look like Chicago if it looked like a city at all (Miller’s Crossing, 1990); a Forties Hollywood that looks like Hollywood’s idea of itself (Barton Fink, 1991); a toytown Fifties New York (The Hudsucker Proxy, 1993); and now a bleached-out, snow-driven Midwest, where the very names of places, for all their actual presence in the atlas, sound like a scrambled allegory: Fargo, North Dakota; Brainerd, Minnesota; Bismarck, North Dakota. What happens in these far-flung settings, this dream-America, as Nabokov once called a similar country? People die a lot, often violently. They are shot in the head and in the gut; their faces are torn away. Heads are severed. One body is tipped into an incinerator; another body is minced in a woodchipping machine. A husband arranges to have his wife and her lover killed; another husband arranges to have his wife kidnapped. Irish and Italian mobsters kill each other, and they both want to kill their Jewish competition. Even when this world turns to comedy, scheming is still an important feature: a baby is stolen, and then is stolen from those who stole it; a large manufacturing company organises its own failure, and then fails to fail. A businessman flings himself from a window on the 44th floor (45 if you count the mezzanine, as a member of the board insists). Schemes go wrong from coast to coast, and from Texas to the Canadian border. No zone is safe. So it’s not quite true that nothing comes with a guarantee. Chaos comes with a guarantee, because something can always go wrong, and always does. The dream of the cancellation of all this which ends Raising Arizona is not the exception that proves the rule, it is the fantasy which confirms the presumed disorder of fact. ‘It seemed like home,’ Nicolas Cage murmurs in voice-over, the camera showing an absurdly conventional family reunion set far in the future. ‘If not Arizona, then a land not too far away, where all parents are strong and wise and capable, and all children are happy and beloved.’ A pause. ‘I don’t know. Maybe it was Utah.’
‘Things have changed,’ one of the hoodlums says in Fargo, when a little kidnapping has escalated into triple murder: a policeman blown away because he wouldn’t be bribed, a young man and a young woman swiftly shot because they drove by and saw the dead policeman. ‘Circumstances ... Beyond the, uh, acts of God, force majeure.’ And then later he says twice, rather solemnly: ‘Blood has been shed.’ The fancy diction in the nasty situation recalls the films of Quentin Tarantino, and the actor is Steve Buscemi, who appears in a not dissimilar role in Reservoir Dogs. In Fargo, when Buscemi returns to the hideout he and his fellow hood are using, his face ripped by a gun shot, and caked with blood, he can speak only in a mangled way. He says: ‘You should see the other guy!’
Fargo, like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, is dedicated to a ghastly comedy of violence, and to the suggestion that violence in life is mainly not malign and planned, but messy, like lasagne dropped all over the kitchen floor, or pathological, like a failure to distinguish between the uses of fly-swatters and revolvers. But the Coen brothers are more programmatic about this suggestion than Tarantino is, and heavier in their use of it. With them it isn’t really anything as soft as a suggestion, it is what the films are manifestly saying to us, and in Fargo particularly the expectation that things will get out of hand, that the horrific is the normal once you step into certain areas of American experience, is paired with a joky insistence on the weirdness of normality even when it’s nice. The film feels a little heavy not because it’s slow (although it is), but because it’s edited to make us pause over its ideas: these ordinary people really are strange; these strange people really are ordinary.
The movie ends with the criminals put away and the nice dumpy couple, pregnant police chief and amiable, boring husband, watching TV in bed. She says: ‘Heck, we’re doing pretty good, Norm.’ He says: ‘I love you, Margie.’ She says: ‘I love you, Norm.’ Then they both say, one after the other: ‘Two more months.’ This is too low-key to be funny, and too tacky to be serious. The message, I think, is supposed to be that life goes on, there are good people in the world as well as psychopaths, but the whole thing feels like an unfocused spoof of ordinariness, as if dull married life was, after all, weirder than anything else. This is a subject addressed in Barton Fink, where the pretentious young writer, a sort of travesty of Clifford Odets, is always talking about the common man. But the pay-off there is that there aren’t any common men; that the fellow Fink cast in the role turns out to be a serial killer who specialises in lopping heads off, and the best moments in the film are not its feeble gestures towards satire but its forays into apocalyptic lunacy, as when the killer runs through a burning hotel, flames leaping up all around him as if he were the master of hell, brandishing a shotgun and shouting: ‘Look upon me! I’ll show you the life of the mind!’ That movie portrays a Faulkner figure in the shape of J.P. Mayhew, a drinking Southern gentleman, but it’s closer here to Flannery O’Connor, the great American artist of the grotesque. She once said she didn’t think that the texture of Southern life was ‘any more grotesque than that of the rest of the nation, but it does seem evident that the Southern writer is particularly adept at recognising the grotesque.’ Growing up Jewish in the Midwest might not be a bad training either. In his Introduction to the screenplay of Fargo, Ethan Coen recalls his grandmother insistently teaching the boys a Russian phrase signifying ‘By your tongue you will get to Kiev,’ a maxim meaning: ‘If you don’t know, just ask.’ Coen is not sure how talking about Kiev was meant to work in America, but takes the proverb as looking forward to a certain extravagance of truth: ‘Surely young Grandma (itself a paradox) would not have believed anyone telling her that she would never in her life see Kiev, but would see The Jolly Troll Smorgasbord & Family Restaurant in Minneapolis.’
The voice at the beginning of Blood Simple is that of a private detective played by M. Emmet Walsh. He is a greasy, bulging fellow, whose sweaty face slides in and out of erratic smiles as if it were made of warm wax. He drives a scruffy Volkswagen Beetle, and he seems to be just a buffoon. Then you realise he’s a lethal buffoon. He’s hired to kill a pair of lovers, but kills the husband who hires him instead; then tries to kill the lovers after all, and gets the man before the woman gets him. At one point there seemed to be a logic to his actions, but you lose track of it, and the movie is all the better for this: the man is like some materialisation of the crazy violence lurking everywhere in this imagined Texas, and his air of shabby incompetence makes him all the scarier when you realise he is grimly determined to bump off all the movie’s principal characters if he can. He’s a slob, but a slob with an iron will, and all the meanness in the world. The moment when he breaks down a wall with one hand in order to remove the knife that is pinning his other hand to a window-sill makes it clear that he is not to be taken lightly. He dies laughing, because the woman who shot him (through a door) still thinks he is her husband. Down here you’re on your own, but you can still see the joke.
The things you remember from this film have to do with its cleverness, but the things are not only clever. The woman sits up in bed in front of a window, talking to her lover. When she lies down, we see the private detective’s rusty Volkswagen parked outside. How long has it been there? The eeriness of its appearance, without cut or change of angle, suggests a form of magic. It has always been there, even when we couldn’t see it. Or it has been conjured up just now, by the woman’s talk. Craziness comes when you call it, or even think of it. A little earlier, there is what seems to be a conventional sequence of cuts from ceiling fan to a man (the husband) sitting thinking to ceiling fan again to a woman in bed in another house. What’s conventional is the use of the item of furniture as a transition – think of all those chandeliers in movies which are only there to get us to another chandelier. But here the ceiling fans are different: the first, with pale wooden blades, is in the husband’s office; the second, with blue metal blades, is in the lover’s house. So strong is the sense of the gaze directing meanings in the movies that you can’t believe a cut from a man looking at the ceiling to a ceiling fan doesn’t represent what he actually sees. I had to rewind the film twice to convince myself that the fans are different. And of course, the effect is perfect, and prophetic. The man is in the other house in his angry mind, and the next time we see him he has infiltrated the house in fact.
The Coens’ movies are full of touches like this. But they are not always, or even usually, as delicately connected to mood and movement. Elsewhere the cinematic swishes – the close-up on the whisky glass, the busy high-angle shots all over the place, the Hitchcockian figures cropped at the knees so that only their legs and feet are in the frame – are just cinematic swishes, signs that movie-making is going on. There is one interesting moment in Miller’s Crossing, though, where the movie-making is not relevant but appealing for just that reason. We see a dog, and a boy, and what they are looking at: the body of a dead man slumped against a wall in an alley. There is something strange about the angle of the man’s hair. Close-up of the boy, a poor-looking innocent out of a De Sica movie or a Kertesz photograph. The boy tugs at the dead man’s hair, it’s a wig, comes off easily. The boy and the dog scamper off. The dead man turns out to be Rug Daniels, an Irish gangster, and there are various guesses about who killed him. The mystery is finally solved, but nobody can work out why the killer would want to take the man’s wig, and nobody can imagine that accident has whisked the wig away.
The woman who heroically survives the onslaught of the miasmic detective in Blood Simple is played by Frances McDormand, who is also a leading character in Fargo – Marge Gunderson, the pregnant Brainerd police chief called in when the kidnapping turns to murder. She has a wonderfully understated acting style, dominated by a level stare, which in the earlier movie means bewildered innocence, but here means crafty intelligence masquerading as northern stupidity. You can also see her in the thriller Primal Fear, where she plays a psychiatrist, and the stare there suggests a refusal to be bullied and an intelligence in excess of local needs. When she arrives at the scene of the triple crime in Fargo, she sums it up in seconds, deducing what happened exactly as we have seen it happen: ‘Okay, so we got a trooper pulls someone over, we got a shooting, and these folks drive by, and we got a high-speed pursuit, ends here, and this execution-type deal.’ All this delivered in a slow, monotonous Swedish-inflected accent; most of the people in the movie talk as if they were trying out for a Bergman film but had to do it in English, and had a vocabulary which rarely went beyond ‘Geez’ and ‘Yah’. When Marge has to throw up, it is not, as her colleague thinks, at the sight of the destroyed face of one of the corpses. It’s morning sickness.
The screen keeps whiting out in this movie, as if the film had faded into nothing, but it’s just the northern weather: pale sky, or icy mist, or a snow-storm, or a snow-covered car park. When the trooper pulls the kidnapper over, we see his prowler, lights flashing, through the iced rear window of the hoods’ car: it’s like a ghost ship in some arctic vision. When the Buscemi character decides to bury the kidnapping money, he trudges across a field of snow, chooses a spot close to a wire fence, digs a hole, covers it over. Then he looks up: the fence stretches for miles in both directions, identical poles sticking up in unmarked snow. The effect the Coens were after, Ethan Coen says in his Introduction, was that of ‘the abstract landscape of our childhood – a bleak, windswept tundra, resembling Siberia except for its Ford dealerships and Hardee’s restaurants’. What’s interesting is that apart from the temperature and the colouring, the landscape also resembles that of their first two movies, Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, a world where the camera is always being used to register emptiness and flatness, and where the car and the road are almost everything. A recurring image in these films is the double yellow line down the centre of a long, flat highway: as if human beings had managed to make one tidy mark on this inhuman scene, but had messed up everything else. A stage direction in Fargo reads: ‘The police car enters with a whoosh and hums down a straight-ruled empty highway, cutting a landscape of flat and perfect white.’
The other remarkable performance in this movie, apart from McDormand’s, is that of William H. Macy as Jerry Lundergaard, a car salesman who owes a lot of money (he’s borrowed $320,000 against a set of cars he hasn’t got), and has hatched the hare-brained scheme of having his wife kidnapped and splitting the ransom money with the kidnappers. Who’s going to pay the ransom? His rich and unsympathetic father-in-law. Why doesn’t Jerry just ask for the money, from his wife or her father? Because they don’t know he needs it, and wouldn’t give it to him anyway. Macy looks amiable, nervous, grins as if in pain. He looks like a crook’s idea of a trustworthy person, so deeply suspect that you realise he’s never going to deceive anybody, and his helplessness, along with his pathetic belief in the possibilities of his no-hope plans, almost makes you like him. The trick is that his scheme should seem close to insane (to us) and entirely plausible (to him). He doesn’t know the criminals he’s dealing with, and he doesn’t know how much damage can result. He would be a sort of innocent if he were not so determined to be devious. The most subtle and discreet comment on what’s wrong with his notions is not the series of murders he has indirectly unleashed, although that is comment enough, but the scene in which his son sobs for his stolen mother, and wonders what will happen to her. Jerry hasn’t really thought about this – she was only an item in his scheme – and can’t comfort his son, only offer him the weary, transparent lies he’s telling everyone else.
There aren’t quite enough such moments in the movie. It’s very intelligent work, and its icy atmosphere tells a whole austere story in its own right. It’s probably the Coens’ best film since Blood Simple and Raising Arizona. But it still recycles American mythologies rather than exploring them or playing with them. When Marge has arrested the remaining criminal single-handed (the real psychopath, the one who was feeding the corpse of Buscemi to the woodchipper), she broods on the meaninglessness of it all. Five people dead now – the state trooper, the two witnesses, Buscemi and, almost incidentally, Jerry’s unfortunate wife – and what for? ‘For a little bit of money,’ Marge says to the stonily silent killer. ‘There’s more to life than a little money, you know.’ A little later: ‘I just don’t understand it.’ It’s right that Marge shouldn’t understand it, of course, and that we shouldn’t understand it either. But there is something too easy about this orchestration of our failure, just as there is something too easy about the movie’s amazement at the ordinary. Violence is grotesque and readily stumbled into, just waiting for impatient or stupid or arrogant people. And happiness is grotesque too, picturable only as a remorseless absence of glamour. Nothing is glamorous except cold weather, and that is only glamorous to look at, since it shows the screen at its empty best.