A Coen-Kidnapping - One Topic, Two Realizations

Term Paper, 2005

19 Pages, Grade: 1,0



Table of Contents


1. Fargo – A Homespun Murder Story

2. The Big Lebowski – “That rug really tied the room together…”

3. A Concluding Comparison




“You make these stupid movies, and then a year later you’ve got homework.”

(Ethan Coen)

In this paper for the seminar “Outstanding Film Directors” I want to analyze two movies by Joel and Ethan Coen, namely Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski, its successor from the year 1998.

After introducing the movies along with their characters, storylines, symbolism, and other relevant issues, I am planning on pointing out to what extend they are similar and typically ‘Coen-esque’, and how they differ. Special attention will be paid to the kidnapping-theme used in both movies, to the display of violence, and to the stylistic devices, especially to those that define the various genres (detective story, western, etc.) utilized by the directors. The way the Coens play with the expectations of their viewers and critics is also supposed to be a topic of this work.

However, before I begin my paper, I would like to introduce the directors to the reader. Joel and Ethan Coen, often referred to as the Coen brothers or the “two-headed director”, were born in St. Louis Park, Minnesota in 1954 and 1957 respectively. While Joel is always credited as the director, Ethan only appears as the producer. In reality though, both of them write, direct, and produce their movies, and also do the cutting, which might be one reason for their aforementioned nickname. Moreover, this fact underlines the humongous influence they have on the resulting product, as all the crucial production steps are carried into execution by them. It also explains the perfectionism to which they attach great importance. As the Coens have a clear vision of their movie-to-be and thus work hard at the preproduction, they will never accept improvisation. Rumor has it that every ‘yah’ in Fargo was actually scripted. (Kilzer, p. 167) It is common knowledge in the business that ad-lib performances are not something these two directors appreciate.

Little is known about their private life because the Coen brothers set value on keeping it out of the public eye. But since they do not include self-depictions or references to their lives in their films, even though many critics suppose so, this fact will not prevent the subsequent discussion of the two named movies.

1. Fargo – A Homespun Murder Story

In Fargo, a rather bland loser named Jerry Lundegaard, who works as a car dealer, is trying to establish his own existence by building a parking lot. When his overwhelming father-in-law Wade Gustafson refuses to lend him the necessary money, Jerry cooks up a plan that involves two gangsters named Gaear and Carl, whom he hires to kidnap his wife Jean. The ransom of 80,000 dollars to be paid by her father will provide for the parking lot, so he thinks. The kidnappers, though, maneuver themselves into different kinds of trouble that result in several dead bodies. Thus, the pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson comes into play. Meanwhile, the situation worsens for Jerry as he has to deal with threats from the kidnappers, a stubborn Wade insisting on playing the hero, and finally, two interrogations by Marge. Hence, he flees only to be nonetheless arrested in the end of the film. In the meantime, Gaear and Carl seek shelter in their hideout, where Gaear kills Jean and later on also Carl. While being occupied with stuffing the two bodies into a wood chipper, he is being approached by Marge, who finally arrests him. The movie ends with a tired Marge crawling back into her husband’s bed.

Fargo is usually referred to as the Coen brothers’ ‘Minnesota film’ in the sense that there have been ‘Hollywood’, ‘Texas’, and ‘L.A.’ movies, each of them equipped with scurrile and exaggerated, but still somewhat emblematic characters for the respective region. The Coens try to portray the characters as geographically and sociologically specific as possible because the more accurate they are, the easier it is to develop them and thus make them more interesting. (J. Coen in Woods, p. 162) Unfortunately, it often happens that people mistake these odd characters for general statements about the area, i.e. as stereotypes, and feel offended. There are umpteen examples for this kind of character that can be found in Fargo; from the grim and brutal kidnapper Gaear, who is the archetype of a taciturn and not so bright Scandinavian, to the naïve hillbilly hookers that give away the kidnappers’ destination to Marge. Analogically, car dealers are swindlers, Koreans lunatics, deputies a little slow and caffeine addicts, and so forth. (Kilzer, p. 117)

Being a ‘Minnesota movie’, i.e. a movie taking place in a rather contemplative and unexciting area of the USA unlike for example L.A. or New York, its mode of narration is neither hectic nor jittery but calmly observing, especially in the beginning, where the viewer is introduced to the wide, snowcapped plains of the state. Only hospitable and considerate people can be found in such a place, one might assume, exactly as the Coens have intended it. The viewer will learn, though, that in this movie, the inhabitants’ cordiality merely hides their violent side, comparable to the masses of snow hiding the true ground or, as the Coens put it at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996: “When the snow recedes in early June, the fields abutting the highway are littered with a season’s quota of empty cigarette packs, soft can drinks, and dead bodies.” (in Kilzer, p.115)

Likewise, among the characters not everything is as simple as it appears to be at first sight. The two protagonists are not impeccable heroes, but rather on the odd side as one is a hypocritical and dishonest car dealer and the other one a pregnant police officer who does not actually care about the events. This can be detected in the scene, where Marge inspects the three victims of Gaear’s shooting: “Oh, I just think I'm gonna barf... Well, that passed. Now I'm hungry again.” One has to note here that her nausea has nothing to do with the display of the bodies, but is just normal morning sickness caused by her pregnancy.

I, myself, oftentimes had the notion that Marge somehow was an outsider in the movie due to several reasons. Firstly, she was not included in the kidnapping as the movie’s pivotal point; secondly, she does not get emotionally involved in the case, she is merely doing her job; and thirdly, until she is able to arrest Gaear, she remains one step behind the felons. This, of course, is in the nature of the matter as the persecutor is always behind the person that is being followed, yet it still increases the impression of her as an outsider. Additionally, she is quite different from the other characters that we meet. She is the ‘quiet strength’ in the movie; she is modest and accomplished, self-assured and satisfied with her life, which is also underlined by the fact that she is pregnant. (Woods, p.174) In my opinion, her pregnancy symbolizes on the one hand that her marriage is characterized by love and affection, and on the other hand that she has a strong will since she continues doing her work even though it might be rather difficult for her; a fact that also shows her stubbornness as she is not willing to quit despite being advanced in pregnancy.

She is so different compared to her adversarial characters because her world is nearly perfect and thus she cannot comprehend the misbehavior of Jerry and his companions. This can, for example, be detected when looking at her first and her last scene. In the first one, she is being called to the case very early in the morning; therefore she is still lying in bed with her husband Norm, whose first reaction is: “I’ll fix ya some eggs.” When Marge refuses, he insists: “Gotta eat a breakfast, Marge. I’ll fix ya some eggs.” This conversation, no matter how normal and trivial it might appear, is indeed an indicator for Marge’s homey family life and her ritualized daily routine in which Norm plays an important role. (Kilzer, p. 113) She cares for him just the way he cares for her, so on the way to the crime scene, she stops by at the local fishing equipment store to fetch some bait for Norm. In her last scene, Marge crawls into bed, talks to Norm about ordinary things, and exchanges an ‘I love you’. The fact that the scene is set in their bedroom again, their invulnerable stronghold, makes it obvious that nothing has changed for Marge. Her private life is still virtually flawless; none of the events has touched her in any special way, so the only comment she makes is, when she expresses her lack of understanding to Gaear: “There’s more to life than a little money, ya know. Don’t ya know that…and here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day…” In Marge’s world, it certainly is.

In contrast to this down-to-earth character living in the rural area of Brainerd, there is the character of Minneapolitan Jerry Lundegaard, the initiator of the incidents. In his first scene, he is on his way to a meeting with Carl and Gaear in a bar in Fargo, a North Dakota border town to Minnesota. He is being exposed to the audience in a way that is emblematic for his fate in the entire movie: as someone trying to make something work by means that are unfamiliar and therefore uncontrollable for him. He wants to hire the two gangsters to kidnap his wife Jean, whose father is well off and will certainly pay the ransom of $80,000 that is to be split between Jerry and the felons. With his share, Jerry is planning on fulfilling his biggest dream, namely the financing of a parking lot that is supposed to be his way to prosperity, but first and foremost to independence. It is implied that it is also very fundamental to him to develop more self respect in order to stand up against his patriarchic father-in-law Wade, who is, strictly speaking, the actual reason for the whole plan because he refuses to lend Jerry the money for his project and even tries to talk him into ceding the idea to Wade’s firm. For Jerry, this is the literal last straw; he is very angry and takes it out on his car by hitting it with his ice scraper. This action clearly shows his powerlessness as he is neither able to rebel against Wade nor to really vent his anger. Hitting a car with a little plastic scraper is neither a mature nor an effective way of dealing with aggravation. However, Jerry sees his last resort in blackmailing the necessary money from Wade by having Jean kidnapped. I am sure he could have thought of a different way, but in my opinion punishing Wade with such a tragedy is more than satisfying to him. It is him that pulls the strings, and even though Wade does not know this, it still pleases Jerry.


Excerpt out of 19 pages


A Coen-Kidnapping - One Topic, Two Realizations
Dresden Technical University
HS Outstanding Film Directors
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
485 KB
Includes analysis and story lines of Fargo and The Big Lebowski as well as a comparison, and general facts on the Coens' work
Coen-Kidnapping, Topic, Realizations, Outstanding, Film, Directors
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2005, A Coen-Kidnapping - One Topic, Two Realizations, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/47220


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