DULUTH — The scene in “Fargo” atop a snow-blanketed parking ramp, in which one of the kidnappers-for-hire is shot in the cheek and bloodied, summed up “how the Coens feel about Minnesota.” And it’s not good.
So concluded reporter, documentarian and filmmaker Todd Melby in his new book, “A Lot Can Happen in the Middle of Nowhere: The Untold Story of the Making of ‘Fargo’” (Minnesota Historical Society Press).
The Coens, of course, are the celebrated and decorated filmmaking brothers Ethan and Joel Coen, who grew up in Minnesota and returned home in the winter of 1995 to make their blood-splattered, desolate-looking, everyone-talks-funny — but also iconic — masterpiece, “Fargo.” The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards and took home two bronze statues for best actress (Frances McDormand) and best original screenplay. The Coens themselves have been nominated for 14 Oscars over the years and have won four times.
So a behind-the-scenes look at one of their best works — and made in Minnesota to boot? Oh, you betcha.
Atop the parking ramp, the kidnapper-for-hire, Carl — played by the great Steve Buscemi — expected someone else to bring him the ransom money. Feeling crossed, he shoots. And gets shot. And then gets angry.
“Happy now, (expletive)?” Carl yells. Then, after a pause, “What’s with you people?” And after another pause, “You (expletive) imbeciles!”
“The first comment is directed at the stranger with the briefcase who is bleeding in front of him,” Melby writes, dissecting the scene, making his case for the Coens' true feelings about the state that considers them favorite sons. “The second thing Carl yells … is the result of days of encounters with passive-aggressive Minnesotans. The New Yorker has had it with the smug yokels. And the third thing is an exclamation point.”
In other words, according to Melby, the Coens think we in Minnesota are imbeciles? Ah, jeez, really?
Melby makes a convincing argument: “(The Coens) fled to New York. They made a movie that pokes fun at Minnesota, in which many Minnesotans are portrayed as simpletons and buffoons. Carl’s bullet into the gut of the man who controls the I-394 mafia, the man who refused to lend his son-in-law funds for a real estate deal, the man who is a hockey obsessive, the man who insists on doing it himself despite specific orders is the Coens’ bullet into the gut of Minnesota. The fact that Minnesota (embodied as the father-in-law) fires back with a bullet into Carl’s face shows an attempt at revenge, but a nonlethal, failed attempt. It’s the father-in-law, not Carl, who dies, alone, on top of a cold slab of concrete.
While it’s easy to miss the message, Melby continues, “it’s there, waiting for those who take the time to listen to Carl’s words.”
Well, ain’t that a bit of a fall through thin ice?
The book as a whole, though, is insightful and interesting to anyone, whether an imbecile or not, who saw the movie and was taken in by a story of a complicated crime bumbled to tragic results by everyday people. The casting decisions, on-the-fly rewrites, the unusual lack of snow that complicated nearly every set and shot, the familiar-to-us locations, how the actors were trained to talk Minnesotan, and more all are covered.
We learn that the plot of “Fargo” may have been based on a real 1972 kidnapping with a Duluth connection. Two men, after a botched home invasion in the wealthy west-of-Minneapolis suburb of Orono, take a woman, put a pillowcase over her head, and drive her north to Jay Cooke State Park. The real-life story had a happier ending.
The movie’s namesake, the city of Fargo, also was backhanded by the Coens, according to Melby.
“I asked Ethan why they called it ‘Fargo’,” since little of the movie takes place there, one of its stars, William H. Macy, recalls in the book. “And he said they didn’t think anybody would go see a movie called ‘Brainerd.’”
Another “Fargo” actor, Tony Denman, said of the choice of Fargo for the title: “It’s … just got this bland quality to it. … It’s just funny sounding. … They’re clever calling it that. … It throws people off. That’s what the Coens like to do, put people on a back foot and make people think about it. … A lot of times they just do it because they like messing with people."
A desire to mess with people is the likely motivation for the onscreen claim at the movie’s opening that “This is a true story.” It’s not. As for the Coens’ true feeling about their home state? Todd Melby and his new book make a convincing argument about what’s true there.
Contact columnist Chuck Frederick at 218-723-5316 or firstname.lastname@example.org.