Pop Otpics: Fargo and the Art of the Fool

Fargo had a wide release on March 8, 1996. On its 25th anniversary, I want to think out loud about how a few of its principal characters were quite the fools and how their hubris was their downfall. Not that if they were any smarter would that mean anything.

There’s a common theme found in the majority of Coen Brothers films and it could be best described as the presence of wealth and its power over others. Several of their best known films are variations on this theme, if not partially recycled (just two years later, The Big Lebowski would feature a phony kidnapping and a briefcase full of money as central motivators, but to much more humorous ends). Another prominent part of this theme is how easily swayed people are to the promise of a cash injection. Greed readily consumes and corrupts until they’re dimly powered automotans driven purely by id. Well, idiocy.

Jerry Lundegaard, is the textbook definition of a sad sack. It doesn’t hurt that he’s played by professional sad sack portrayer William H Macy, a man who even if he played a more valiant character, you’d assume that he’d been emasculated at some point.

Jerry, though, is openly emasculated at every turn, be it colleagues, customers, or even (and especially) his father-in-law. Life dishes out daily beatings for Jerry and he would ask for another if it meant he’d earn some respect, but no one respects him. It’s a sad state of affairs as he can’t seem to amass any sort of authority either at work or at home. 

He probably makes the same face when he’s on the can.

At a family meal, Wade Gustafson, his father-in-law, can’t help but insult him in front of his wife for not being strict when his son decides to up and leave to hang out with friends. Jerry and wife Jean pay no mind to it, but Wade is incredulous and doubtful of the true motives of his grandson. He doesn’t think teens just go to hangout at McDonald’s these days for milkshakes. I mean, maybe he’s on to something. I didn’t go to the roller rink to skate when I was a teen. That was just the meet-up spot for when we’d go loiter, smoke pot, or do some heavy petting if you weren’t single. Then again, maybe Wade’s an asshole and just wants to take any chance he can to question Jerry’s abilities to be a father and put his foot down once in a while and discipline is his kid.

Jerry is a schmuck, no doubt there. He’s the executive sales manager at a car dealership owned by Wade, so you can figure that he was given this role upon the marriage to Jean. You can tell he’s in over his head with this position because, well, he sucks at sales. In one scene, he gets chewed out by a customer over the cost of the car he’s purchased, damning Jerry for having lied to him. All the while, Jerry keeps his head down in shame, same as a dog when shown the mess they’ve made on the carpet. You can sense that he feels bad that he’s conned this person, but in a socially accepted venue. It’s clear that Jerry doesn’t have a taste for this. As much as he likes the idea of being in a position of power, he doesn’t possess any power, thus making his authority fictitious in a sense. He retreats within himself, keeps his head down, no eye contact, and radiates his weakness so strongly, he’s a bright burning star of cowardice.

Which makes his private dealings so shocking.

In the opening scene, we see Jerry meeting with two criminals that had come recommended to him by an ex-con mechanic working at the dealership, however, as we’ll learn later, he only vouched for one of them. When there’s only an approval rating of 50%, maybe that’s a sign to reconsider crime as an option.

Jerry’s in a bit of a pickle, as he’s taken out $320,000 in phony auto loans. Now, I’m no forensic accountant, but that sounds a lot like fraud to me. He’s got a plan, though. Well, it’s less of a plan and more of rough draft. He’s got like 12% of a plan. He’s concocted an idea to stage a phony kidnapping of his wife to set up a ransom to be paid by Wade, of which he will comp 96% of the payout. I suppose if you’ve already committed one crime, you might as well commit another so the two will cancel each other out, with what’s ethical and moral being purely subjective.

The plan goes that these two fellas will kidnap Jerry’s wife, keep her a couple of days, call in for a ransom which Wade will provide but Jerry will run point on delivering so that it is guaranteed that everyone gets their share; Jerry gets his wife, and these phony-kidnappers also get a brand new tan Sierra for their troubles.

Also, they’re getting totally bilked as Jerry says that the ransom will only be $80,000, of which he’ll keep 50%, when in truth, he’s trying to fleece Wade for a cool million. Hypothetically, Jerry is going to use much of that cash to pay back the phony loans (with probable interest) so he should still be walking away with some sort of profit. Why Jerry took out phony loans in the first place is never explained. It could be he’s deep in debt and needed some quick cash, or he’s trying to pad his sales quota. Or he’s trying to gain confidence in himself in an effort to best Wade in the financial department, because Jerry has a back-up plan, a Plan B that really, should have been Plan A because kidnapping is never your first choice. That plan I’ll get to later.

If you’re the average non-criminal type, this shouldn’t add up and you should feel like there’s better things to do with your time, like amatuer dentistry. However, if you are the average criminal type, then this should still sound stupid of slightly enterprising. A new fool has entered the game.

Carl Showalter, played with only the oiliest of charisma you get from Steve Buscemi, is also an idiot. His stupidity doesn’t rival Jerry’s as much as it does complement it. They’re the same charged points of two magnets being forced together despite being naturally repellent towards each other. Carl thinks Jerry’s in over his head and finds the whole phony kidnapping plot highly dubious, but hey, money’s money and this feels like an easy payday for him and his silent partner, Gaear Grimsrud, played by Peter Stormare and his natural brooding intensity. Carl accepts the terms and conditions of the “crime” and Jerry feels pretty good about this.

Clearly these men are professionals and at least average at what they do.

Except that he shouldn’t because, again, Jerry’s a damned fool.

Remember how I said that there’s a Plan B in the works? Somewhere after the meeting in Fargo, Jerry meets with Wade and his personal accountant to discuss a proposal Jerry brought to him. It’s an investment in a parking lot and to Wade and his accountant, it’s actually a really great idea. So they praise Jerry for the opportunity and he starts to feel some pride. Until Wade reveals they were only planning to offer him a finder’s fee and they would broker the deal themselves. See, Jerry was hoping to get the cash himself and then…what. Walk off with the money? You know, as I think about this, this was also a really bad plan because Wade doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would just accept that money he’s invested in something had no payoff or if the deal fell through, he’d want that money back. Jerry really is the worst.

Anyway, the deal doesn’t happen because Jerry gets snippy and bails without any cash in hand. At the same time, Carl and Gaear had just committed the worst kidnapping attempt in cinematic history as they really didn’t have to do anything as Jean literally fell into their clutches. From the get go, things don’t go smoothly. That night they’re driving to their hiding spot, they get pulled over because Carl forgot to switch the tags for the car. A failed attempt at bribing the trooper ends up with a hole in the trooper’s head and the death of a couple cruising by. Now, I’m no criminal, but this seems like something you don’t want happening. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.

The hapless duo make it to their remote cabin and settle in but it’s clear that Carl isn’t one to stay put. He’s the hyper one of the two by a margin as tall as Paul Bunyan. Gaear is more than willing to just stay put in a cold cabin watching soap operas featuring a certain “groovy” actor on a television with fuzzy reception. That’s fine by him. Carl can’t sit still, however. He takes it on himself to run point on scouting the location for the exchange, but also takes in some of the local nightlife with a fine escort and some Jose Feliciano. Of course, his carelessness catches up with him at this point. See, the murder of a state trooper and two civilians doesn’t just go unnoticed, so this kicks off an investigation that pays a visit to the dealership and a conversation with that excon mechanic, one Shep Proudfoot, who despite displaying a rather calm and stoic presence when questioned, later unloads on Carl when he finds him in the middle of the corporate handshake equivalent of sex with his escort. A good belt-whipping and choke out later, Carl is now incensed with the way things have played out. He calls Jerry, is furious, and lays out that he wants the full payment of $80K (again, he doesn’t know that Jerry was making the play for a million). Jerry is in disbelief but he more or less complies with this, no skin off his back. It just means he’s out an extra $40K in the end. So words are exchanged and the drop is arranged.

Except… we have yet one more idiot poking their head in.

The look of someone who doesn’t handle surprises well.

Up to this point, Fargo is all about how easily plans can fall apart when you’re not being careful. Jerry wasn’t thinking when he decided to defraud a bank, nor was he thinking when he decided that another crime was the answer, no matter how “fake” it was. Carl was never thinking beyond his own gratification, only tending to his needs and not ensuring that the plot was executed without complication. These are two fools who deserve each other. Of course, they aren’t the only fools featured in this film, with varying degrees of stupidity. Some aren’t fools, per se, but they act a little foolishly but are more than competent, or are maybe just displaying a naivety that to an outsider would appear to be foolishness. Nevertheless, there’s still one more fool in this whole operation that takes the cake.

Enter: Wade Gustafson, Schmuck Supreme.

Now, you may be screaming at the computer right now as you read this, that I’m wrong, that Wade isn’t an idiot. Now, compared to Carl or Jerry, no, he can’t compare, but he does do plenty to expose himself as being not as careful as either. All throughout the film, Wade has written-off Jerry at every opportunity as a smart man. Wade dismisses everything Jerry does because it’s not what he would do. It’s amazing that Wade ever permitted Jerry to marry his daughter and makes you wonder then if there was a point in time Wade must have respected Jerry. I also wonder what kind of speech he gave at the wedding and how hard it must have been for him to not insult Jerry.

Wade is not in control of a situation he shouldn’t be expected to be in control of. Jerry is the one orchestrating the whole thing, so he gets to call the shots and for once holds dominion over Wade, and that eats away at him. Wade doesn’t like the idea of bending to Jerry’s will and doesn’t like that they’re not making negotiations. He resigns himself to this, but is fuming as things shake out. In the end, decides to hijack the whole operation and inserts himself into Jerry’s position for the drop. When he arrives at that airport parking lot to confront a rattled Carl who has lost his last fuck to give, Wade is under the impression that he can just cowboy his way out of this.

Carl wasn’t expecting Wade. Carl was expecting Jerry. Carl has no patience for a new face in this scheme. It also doesn’t help things that Carl is ready to end this whole ordeal as it’s been more trouble than it’s worth. Except Wade is just as ready, but without being clued into the fact that this whole thing is a work, he went into business for himself and turned it into a shoot.

Oh, and he got shot for his efforts.

Carl, absolutely done with this shit, just decides to straight up shoot Wade. I think it’s at this point that Wade realizes “Oh, gee… maybe I’m in over my head here.”

Oh, that was a spicy pepper.

Carl is livid because even though I’m sure he’s used to having to shoot people, he didn’t expect this deal to end with him having to shoot someone. This was supposed to be an easy job. No fuss, no muss, but it’s been a shitshow at every turn. In his dying  moments, Wade manages to fire off a shot, striking Carl’s face. In response, Carl wastes Wade, leaving him truly dead on the top lot of that parking garage.

Wade died as he lived, a damned fool. And now that he’s dead, where does that leave things?

The rest of the plan goes to hell pretty quickly after that. Jerry shows up at the drop site just after Carl has sped off to claim Wade’s body and shove it in his trunk. Carl takes a moment to flip through the attache to find a cool million. He grabs $80K and decides to hide the rest along the highway, figuring he’ll come back for it later. Once back at the cabin, he proudly proclaims that he managed to get all the ransom and gladly splits it with Gaear, who has revealed that he killed Jean because she couldn’t stay quiet. It appears both partners have been trigger-happy. Carl pays him his half and says he’ll take the car, but Gaear informs him that they’ll split the cost so Carl owes him for half. If Carl had been in the right mind, he would have just said “Okay” and tossed another ten grand at Gaear and left it at that, especially as he’s got $920K still bundled up in a ditch somewhere.

Clearly, he was in the right here.

But, again, Carl is a damned fool (there’s that phrase again) and becomes apoplectic that his partner would try to haggle more money out of him. I’ve thought about this scene a lot. We know that Carl is omitting the true size of the ransom from the conversation less he ends up having to fork over more than he’d be comfortable with. In his mind, he’s done more for this job as well as having more damage inflicted upon him (sure, Gaear got bit in the process of the kidnapping but Carl was “fucking shot” in the face). So, we know Carl doesn’t want to let slip about that extra cash. He also can’t simply comply with a request that he pay for half of the car to keep it. That would seem too easy to Gaear and he might get suspicious. Instead, he has to put up a front and act insulted. However, Carl goes the extra step and makes an open threat to Gaear before walking away. On his way out, he also threatens Shep Proudfoot and this appears to be the final straw for Gaear, who gets up off his ass and brings an ax down on Carl.

Hope this is covered by the warranty.

We know how the film ends, with Carl in a woodchipper, Gaear shot in the leg and arrested, and Jerry later apprehended in a hotel for his role in the kidnapping that resulted in the deaths of his wife and father-in-law, crying face-down in his underwear.

Fargo‘s mission was to show not that crime doesn’t pay, but that fools rush in and they rush in hard. No matter the intent or how much they try to minimize the potential for harm, if the plan isn’t solid, then bad things will happen as everything goes wrong. Of course, it’ll be well entertaining.

Honorable Mention

Look at how happy he appears. What a fraud.

Mike Yanagita is my favorite minor character in the film. Though he’s onscreen for all of like five minutes, he makes an impression. His whole deal is that he’s had a crush on the central character of Marge Gunderson since high school and his backstory post high school is tragic. The lie he tells Marge is that he married one of their classmates but that she passed from cancer. Towards the end of the film, Marge finds out this was a lie, that this classmate is still alive and that Mike lost his job and was living with his parents while struggling with his own mental health issues. I can’t say I have ever been in Mike’s situation, but I feel for him up to a point. I wouldn’t construct a web of lies like he did. I would construct a strong network of lies. Or at least tell simple lies that can’t be found out. Again, this film is a showcase of fools who when in over their heads, fail at digging up.