One of the most famous scenes from the Coen brothers’ Fargo is the bit where Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) meets an old high school acquaintance, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) for lunch. The ensuing plague of embarrassment, revolving around Mike’s apparent attraction to Marge and his tearful confessions of loneliness and past tragedy, initially leaves Marge mortified, but a subsequent phone conversation with a friend reveals that Mike’s story of widowhood was phony, and that Mike never married the woman he’d claimed to, and in fact has long suffered from mental problems.
This seemingly pointless (or, my preference, “pointless”) scene reveals much about the Coens, and plays to many of their odd strengths – the comedy of embarrassment, the tragedy of comedy, all that. But what’s most remarkable is that it finally does have a function, one of plot and character (and it’s not the only ostensibly diversionary scene in Fargo’s very tight 98 minutes that will later reveal its place in the film’s overall structure), as Marge uses what she’s learned from the experience to double back and re-question Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), husband of the woman (Kristen Rudrud) whose kidnapping Marge is investigating. And good thing, too, because we, the audience, have known from the beginning that Jerry is the jaw-droppingly stupid mastermind behind the kidnapping, in the hopes of winning out in a very lopsided split of the ransom, to be paid by his wealthy father-in-law (Harve Presnell). The key to this all, somehow, is that it is never spoken about. Marge never has a moment where she says “You know, that thing with Mike Yanagita has got me thinking…” We see her eating lunch in her car, and she looks thoughtful. That’s it. The transition is clear, but silent.
So. But Marge isn’t the only one out there in Fargo whose transitions and motivations are never talked about. What about the kidnappers themselves? A couple of no-good shits, Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) and Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) are classic types, in their way, and their untold story I imagine must be located somewhere along the narrative line that connects Hubert Cornfield's The Night of the Following Day and John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. The Night of the Following Day, I admit, was chosen more or less at random as being one of many crime stories about men adrift, who meet and join up to be nefarious together because each sees a familiar wild streak in the other. Typically, one of these criminals ends up being “better”, morally speaking, than the other, as well as less reckless. One will shed blood (Richard Boone in The Night of the Following Day); our hero, in it only for the money, will not (Brando in ibid). Meanwhile, in Henry, of course, we have two men adrift, who meet and join up to be nefarious together because each sees in the other a desire to spill their sexual rage into the cold-blooded slaughter of the innocent. Pretty different, those two sets of guys, but if you start at Henry and slide back towards the comparatively innocent world of The Night of the Following Day (which, I hardly need to add, is not innocent), you will fade out certain things, such as Henry’s serial murder component, even its bloodlust, or anyway the idea of murder as a goal in itself. But you must stop sliding before you lose cold-bloodedness and rage, and before you gain things like empathy or pity. There is where you will find Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud.
Grimsrud is not very interesting on his own, though the Coens make his type an almost literally towering figure of inarticulate evil – if they’ve crafted a moment better than the one at the end of Fargo when Grimsrud, chained and slack-faced in the back of Marge’s police car, his eyes sparking and his body moving just enough to watch the axe-wielding Paul Bunyan statue glide by, I don’t know what it is. But basically, Grimsrud is just a Cold-Blooded Killer. Where he gains in importance is how he shapes Carl Showalter. The first of Fargo’s several murders occurs when Carl and Gaear’s car is pulled over by a police officer. When Carl’s attempt to bribe the cop doesn’t work, Gaear shoots the cop, splattering Carl with blood. Gaear does it swiftly before lazing back into a slump. Carl, meanwhile, is shocked, his eyes wide as he quietly murmurs a disbelieving “Whoa daddy…” It’s not a stretch to assume that this is the first time Carl has ever seen a man killed. Gaear is disgusted with Carl’s inability to act and his stupefied reaction to the murder (“You are a smooth smooth, you know?” says Gaear), which means that if you begin that narrative line referenced above, but you start at the The Night of the Following Day end this time, Carl would have been the “good” one of the pair (Brando again), the one in it for some quick money, but no rough stuff. Gaear, would naturally, be the psycho from whom the good one must separate, at the very least.
But of course, Carl makes no attempt to do that. And more importantly, we’ve slid into rage and bloodthirstiness by now, and Carl comes to personify that. As Henry does Otis in McNaughton’s film, Gaear has educated Carl by shooting that cop, and then racing after those two witnesses to blow them away, as well, leaving Carl alone and weak and exposed, holding one of Gaear’s fresh kills. What Gaear has taught Carl is that it’s okay to kill people. They may or may not deserve it, but you deserve to do it. Instead of recoiling from the revelation of what Gaear is, Carl bears his teeth and launches himself down the same path. When Carl goes to pick up the ransom from Wade and things don’t go exactly as he’d envisioned, it’s suddenly nothing to Carl, the man gasping “Whoa daddy” not long ago, to draw his gun and shoot Wade down. He’s been helped along no doubt by the ass-kicking received by Shep Proudfoot (Steven Reevis) earlier, but regardless – it’s easy. So easy that he blasts the poor kid running the gate of the parking lot where the ransom was to have been passed off. And as his wounded and bloody self shambles into the cabin he shares with Gaear, he boasts, regarding the wound Wade gave him before expiring, “You should see the other guy.”
And what’s in that cabin, with Gaear? The body of Jean Lundegaard, who Gaear has shot (off-screen, I’d like to point out to all those flabbergasted by the depiction of certain events in No Country for Old Men) because “she started shriekin’, you know.” Carl’s reaction? “Jesus. Well, I got the money.” At one point in his life, Carl may have been shaken to his core by seeing this poor woman’s body sprawled on the floor, but now she just gets a shrug. He’s an old hat at this killing business, is Carl, so it’s no big deal. Where he was when he first met Gaear Grimsrud is not where he is now. Who knows how they met? Or why they met? Maybe Carl had something diseased in him all along. Or maybe sociopathy is contagious, and he came down with a case just before the axe fell.