Face Off: Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007)

Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

“Writing about the Coens — and mining their oeuvre for Big Ideas — is a sure way of looking like an ass” — so says David Edelstein of New York Magazine in his original review of No Country for Old Men. There is duality to these words, a twin truth, that simultaneously drives and stays my critic’s pen at this very moment. One, Edelstein is absolutely right. Two, I am already quite accomplished when it comes to looking like an ass.

Despite the fact that most everything from the Brothers Coen seems intentionally built to endure traditional long-form critical analysis, maybe some bite-sized stream-of-consciousness notes on the relationship between two of their most celebrated films — Fargo and No Country for Old Men — will net more insight into how the Coens evolved (or devolved) as filmmakers in the decade between those efforts. Maybe we’ll stumble on a few of those Big Ideas before choosing to ignore them altogether. Maybe we’ll be responding in kind to scripts that are often episodic, meandering, content to leave ostensibly-vital plot threads hanging. Or maybe we’ll just look like asses.

— Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) are the ultimate heroes of Fargo and No Country, though you wouldn’t expect it at the outset of either film. The similarity between these characters offers the most obvious point of comparison, both levelheaded officers of the law making nice in Smalltown, USA, until they’re confronted with something beyond their comprehension. They’re possibly the only two levelheaded people in the entire Coenverse (excepting maybe Tom Regan from Miller’s Crossing or Eddie Mannix from Hail, Caesar!) and that’s fitting, because Fargo and No Country both place a particularly high cost on ignorance.

— Admittedly, the mental state of WTF is where most Coen characters reside:

— “Ignorance” can be a good thing, though, in a sense. The protagonists of Fargo and No Country lead lives that are drastically improved by simplicity. For Marge it’s the steady presence of her mallard-paintin’, Arby’s-eatin’ husband Norm, always there to help jump the prowler when it’s extra cold out. For Ed Tom it’s his wife Loretta, who lends her horse for police work and listens to her husband’s dreams every now and then. For both Marge and Ed Tom it’s the groove of experience that has lent simplicity to the daily routine — though, yes, they’re each also numbed by it. But if the lesson they learn is that complacency can be a death sentence, ultimately, Marge and Ed Tom both yearn for this straightforwardness and the comfort it provides. It’s a painful realization for each of them when they come up against hard evil in their nice little towns.

— To be sure, Anton Chigurh is about as far as you can get from the Minnesota Nice of Fargo, wherein everyone knows everything about everyone else. “Hey, Norm,” says one of Marge’s fellow officers, “I thought you were goin’ fishin’ up at Mille Lacs?” Even Steve Buscemi’s Carl Showalter, an outsider, plays along in attempting to relate to his co-kidnapper: “Ever been to Minneapolis?” But when No Country‘s Chigurh is confronted with the Texas Nice version — “y’all getting any rain up your way? I seen you was from Dallas” — he gives absolutely no quarter: “What business is it of yours where I’m from?”

— Part of me wonders how Marge and Ed Tom would handle each other’s cases. Apart from their belated introduction in their respective films, Marge and Ed Tom both come upon isolated crime scenes peppered with dead bodies, battered vehicles, and not much else. “Execution-type deals” are mentioned in both cases. Perhaps most notable are the off-screen deaths of Jean Lundegaard and Llewelyn Moss; they happen in such a way that we, the audience, basically arrive too late to witness the action. Maybe this is a bit of a cheapshot for the casual moviegoer, but in actuality it places us directly in the mindset of Marge and Ed Tom, helplessly happening upon a horror they might have been able to prevent.

Fargo (1996)
No Country for Old Men (2007)

— Despite running longer than Fargo by almost a half-hour, No Country is the more svelte narrative, cut to match the clip of the chase, the pacing deliberate to the point of relentlessness. The plot is just tight as hell, even for the perfectionist Coens and their editing alter-ego “Roderick Jaynes.” These are the same guys who released a Director’s Cut of their first feature Blood Simple that was actually three minutes shorter than the theatrical release. No Country makes that debut seem bloated by comparison.

— But I do like the flavoring from the bigger bits of fat left on Fargo, the recurring stuff that’s usually sacrificed in the cutting room for the sake of runtime. The entire subplot with Mike Yanagita is fantastic and, at the same time, arguably unnecessary. Even though Marge’s subtle realizations about Jerry Lundegaard are potentially borne of her meeting with Mike, maybe the No Country-era Coens would have found a more aerodynamic way to deliver this revelation. But Mike Yanagita is such a memorable supporting player and the personality of Fargo is better for his inclusion, aerodynamics be damned.

— A good MacGuffin is hard to find (see: Ark of the Covenant, the One Ring, Rosebud, the Maltese Falcon). Technically, the MacGuffin of both Fargo and No Country is a big briefcase full of millions of dollars, which in and of itself is sort of Coenesque in how elemental and primal it is (personally, I’m always keeping an eye out for a big briefcase full of millions of dollars). Typically a MacGuffin-fueled plot ends with the protagonist triumphantly holding that MacGuffin aloft in victory. The Coens know you expect that outcome and choose instead to have their money cases buried in the snow or retrieved off-screen by the primary antagonist.

— The briefcases do look mighty similar, actually, which plays into the increasingly popular idea of a shared cinematic universe. Coen features are almost perfectly spaced throughout America, in both a geographical sense and throughout the 20th century…

Imagine how long it took whoever made this to snip out all these little character heads

…so maybe Marvel wasn’t the first to create an interconnected film universe after all. Who’s down for an Avengers-style team-up?

— We’ll soon be posting a more extensive dive into No Country for Old Men in our Take Two column, but consider this particular Face Off a fluid and ever-updating forum for ramblings about Fargo, No Country, and the decade of Coen films that came between them. Also check out our awesome review of The Hudsucker Proxy and our 15th Anniversary piece on O Brother, Where Art Thou? from the New York Film Festival, don’cha know.

Yer darn tootin’!
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