Department of Theatre and Film
A Revisionist Approach to Neo-Noir
By John Jurko
In their 1996 film, Fargo, Joel and Ethan Coen take a revisionist approach to traditional film noir narrative. The film can be considered neo-noir for its detective story and world of corruption, but it opposes the traditional noir of the 40s and 50s in the crucial details. Instead of the detective acting as the audience’s guiding light through a corrupt world, the audience is given an objective view into the separate lives of the main characters. Contrary to the norm, the detective is no longer male, a female has embodied the traditionally male role, and in addition to that, she is a pregnant. Unlike the corrupt institutions and police of many traditional film noir, the detective and the police force are comprised of flawless, strong-willed, good people. On the other hand, the criminals are blinded by their greed and their moronic behavior leads them to their own demise. Many of the standard expectations of a film noir are twisted and given in a creative new light by exploring its ideals in a modern setting.
Fargo takes place in 1987 Minnesota, and is centered around the life of car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy). Jerry finds himself in a financially precarious situation and he hires two men to kidnap his wife, whose family is quite well-off. When his father-in-law pays the ransom, Jerry plans on taking half of it for himself. Everything is going as planned until the kidnappers, Carl (Steven Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare), are pulled over for failure to display their temporary tags. When Gaear suspects their cover is blown, he kills the officer and two passersby. This scene introduces the detective, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). From this point on everything goes wrong for Jerry and the kidnappers, and after several more deaths Marge and the police bring them to justice.
The first half hour of the film is told through the eyes of the criminals, Jerry, Carl, and Gaear. Unlike the corrupt institutions and police of many traditional films noir, Marge and the police possess qualities of integrity, competence and determination. Marge is not your typical noir detective. The most important difference from the classic detective is the fact that she is a woman and pregnant. In most classical film noir, the detective is a male “private dick”, who is usually regarded as scum by the real police. However, Marge loves her husband and her job, and wants to serve justice.
The film also goes against the grain by excluding the traditional femme fatale. Marge Gunderson is an ideal detective and ray of light in the world of the film. Once Jerry sets the ball rolling on his get-rich-quick scheme his weak-willed and greedy mind begins to embody the role of the femme fatale to himself. The only time that Jerry even thinks about putting the kidnapping to a halt is when he thinks that Wade will give the money to Jerry for his $750,000 lot. Jerry either really thinks that he is going to make money off of this lot, or he is hoping that Wade will give him the money and ask no further questions. The evil of Jerry’s greed blinds him to everything outside of his goal to get the money.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s film is not a traditional “who done it”story, which is typical of the Film Noir genre. But it does maintain some of the traditions of the genre. Fargo is instead setup like an objective analysis of the noir world: good versus evil. Although Marge and the police are on a search for the criminals, the audience is already quite aware of the criminals’ plans and actions. The audience can observe how the minds of both sides are working and how they interact. The good and evil of Fargo is very black and white, going back to the tradition of the Film Noir genre. The good are intelligent people who, respect and care for others’ lives; whereas the evil are selfish and only work with others to get what they want for themselves. Even their intelligence is hampered by their blinding greed. Evil, in this way, is observed as self-destructive. It creates a snow-ball effect, where greed and evil creates only more of itself, offering no apparent way out of the avalanche. The efforts of good win over evil, not only because of good’s intelligence and ability to work together for a common cause, but because of evil’s self-destructiveness. All of the criminals are working out of selfish ambition which consequently leads to dissention and fighting amongst each other. Without the police, the criminals’ self-destructive behaviors, alone, would put an end to their activities; at the expense of some innocent lives along the way. But, Marge and the police are there to catch them as they fall apart on the brink of self-annihilation. The efforts of the “good” surely aided in a speedy end to the spread of evil. In the end Fargo does transcend the customary conventions and archetypes of film noir. But as the saying goes “The more things change, the more things stay the same” and it is evident that while Fargo does add novel elements to its genre by having the star detective be a pregnant woman and the police not be riddled with corruption. However, it still plays the typical cards of a film noir movie by dealing with issues like good and evil in black and white. Joel and Ethan Coen’s film pays homage to film noir by exploring its ideals in a modern setting and adding a revisionist twist to stereotypes and style.