The Coen Brothers Know How to Murder

Author’s note: This is reblogged from I Fry Mine in Butter, published in May 2011.

Please note, this post contains and focuses on images of fictional violence.

I was a fan of the Coen Brothers before Fargo came out, and then it was all over, I was nuts about Coen Brothers movies. I still think there’s never been a better movie opening than the one in Raising Arizona. There are a lot of things I could write about with regard to their work, but fortunately for me, it’s mostly been covered by the blogosphere. What I haven’t seen, however, is this, and coincidentally enough, it’s one of my most favorite aspects of their work—it is freaking hard to kill someone. On a larger level, it is inordinately hard to be a criminal. Shit just doesn’t work out very well.

In two films, the aforementioned Fargo and Burn After Reading, people who are otherwise desperate or ignorant try to deal with their circumstances by identifying get rich quick schemes. They even had the best intentions to start out, but faced with two juggernauts as adversaries—well established, smart and greedy businessmen, and oh, the Russian embassy, respectively—they fold like a house of cards in a day care center.

Jerry Lundegaard (played by Mr. Method, William H. Macy) has no idea how his life has gone so far off the rails, and he never figures it out. So frustrated from being overlooked by his insensitive buffoon of a father-in-law, he finally comes up with a money-making deal, only to have Dad and Company offer him a pittance for bringing the idea to him. When he says he wants more money than that, they tell him okay, no deal, but we’ll go ahead with this plan on our own, and Jerry, not being one from the Direct Communication school of confrontation, opts instead to find two criminals to kidnap his wife and hold her for ransom.

In its foreign release, Fargo’s premise is given away by its subtitle, A Comedy of Errors.This is a loose definition of the word comedy. Where Raising Arizona went for the guffaw, Fargo launches straight for the jugular so it can get as bloody as possible. The kidnapping goes badly, and here is the first of several instances in which violent moments don’t play out as expected.

Just the image of the masked Carl Showalter (Steve Buschemi) peering through the living room windows, trying to figure out where his intended victim is goes to the heart of demystifying violence. In so many television shows and movies, it’s a fight between brilliant serial killers and the genius forensics staff and investigators who hunt them down, the line of scrimmage as small as a double helix strand of DNA. But for anyone who’s come into contact with the actual criminal justice system, life almost never works out that way. You go to kidnap a woman on behalf of her husband and it’s actually such a logistical nightmare—find the address, get in unnoticed, get out with lady unnoticed, get to hideout, deliver ransom notice untraceably, and so on—and Fargo exposes this at every turn.

Getting stopped by a North Dakota state trooper for not having proper tags on their car (hey, it’s how they caught Ted Bundy, right?) was not what they had in mind on the way to their safe house. That Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), Showalter’s accomplice shoots the trooper isn’t novel, but Showalter’s reponse to having the cop’s blood splattered on his face is.

The relationship between the accomplices breaks down quickly and violently, with Showalter showing up, finally, with the ransom, but also with a gunshot wound to his jaw, because even the ransom didn’t happen the way he’d wanted. These are mismatched criminals, with Showalter the loser who turned to crime, and Grimsrud the psychopath who is notable for his near-complete lack of affect the entire film. This is a lot more interesting to me than formulaic, lock-step gang members or blue codes of silence, and so on. They’re not masterminds.

The woman on the hunt, however, is quick-witted. Marge Gunderson (played by Frances McDormand, who won the Oscar for this role) is the sheriff in town, the very pregnant sheriff, which is also a sliver of against type that the Coen brothers work into their films. While at first she is looking into what appears to be a simpler crime, a whole lot of bodies pile up before she catches up to Grimsrud in the infamous “wood chipper” scene. It’s not even easy to dispose of an accomplice in a wood chipper, apparently. And where everyone else has failed to win in any battle against Grimsrud, she prevails. Part good detective work, part nothing fancy.

In Burn After Reading, the setting is wildly different, in the urbanity of Washington, DC. As an aside I’ll say here that I love movies about DC; having lived there for more than a decade, I enjoy ascertaining which shots were on location and which were probably shot in some far away place like Vancouver.

In this film, Osbourne Cox (the amazing John Malcovich) is a CIA analyst fired from his job for drinking, and the movie watches his progression from condescending jackass to full-on murderer, complete with consequences on the order of mortal coil intensity. Along the way, his wife decides to divorce him and upon advice from her attorney, makes copies of his hard drive, complete with what one presumes are the most rambling and uninteresting memoirs about life in the CIA ever put to a keyboard. Losing the CD at her local gym, it is discovered by the staff, notably Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand again), who decide to blackmail the owner for what they believe is classified government information. Hey, after all the laptops and hard drives that went missing during all the years of the Bush administration, it can’t really be all that upsetting for one little CD to get out, right? But Litzke really, really wants 16 cosmetic surgery procedures, and $50,000 or so would really help her out. Feldheimer, being a body-focused, helpful team player, wants to support her in her endeavor to get the body not achievable through their own vocation. They decide to blackmail Cox.

By this point, everyone knows it’s not going to proceed smoothly. He can’t even blackmail Cox properly, and winds up not getting the money at their meeting.

Feldheimer, looking for dirt on Cox to up the extortion ante, breaks into Cox’s house and runs into Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), Cox’s wife’s man-mistress. Pfarrer, who has been increasingly paranoid about a dark car following him around town, shoots Feldman in the face, killing him, and it is here where again the Coen brothers go to excruciating detail to show us how darn hard it is to clean up after shooting someone in the face.

The plot lines devolve into more violence, increasingly interwoven, until Cox takes after the gym manager Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins), who has nothing to do with anything, with a hatchet. It’s a last scene of bloody gore that reveals the amount of energy to swing an axe into and out of a body, and you can see on Cox’s face that he wants to rethink the moment after the first couple of strikes. I find that watching this scene I have a level of distaste I just don’t experience watching a shootout on television, because that violence is mystified as plot development. This violence is senseless, awful, shameful. And the brothers Coen are quick to follow up on its heels with a long satirical scene:

So the lesson here kiddies is, don’t go being a criminal. It’s not going to get you anything good.

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