Sunday, September 11, 2016


SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

This 1996 film by the Coen brothers starts off with a statement about how they are realistically presenting actual events in the movie out of respect for the dead. The Coens are satirizing the overwhelming trend in recent years to give into reality-based stories as the accepted source for entertainment. The story here is really fictitious, but like all great writing, it uses true experiences as a way to reveal human nature. By declaring that the film is based on an actual story, the effect is to allow the audience to be drawn into a bizarre tale they might otherwise reject.
The Coens are from Minnesota so their imaginative script comes from their real experiences living among the people inhabiting this land. As can be deduced from the names of the characters, many of the people who live there derive from Sweden, coming from one cold land and settling in another. The filmmakers described the locale as “Siberia with family restaurants.” This line points to the duality of the setting. There is the harshness of the cold mixed with politeness on the part of the natives. It’s what the Coens call “Minnesota nice.” The language is filled with corny, folksy phrases, such as, “Oh, yah,” You’re darn tootin!” and “Oh, you betcha.” These people face a challenging environment with a smile, like the cheery cashier despite her unglamorous job, and a persistence, like the fellow later in the film who knows it perpetually gets colder and still another weather front is coming in, but who continues to clear his driveway. But, the makers of this movie also stated that this forced continual politeness represses the negative aspects of humans, which can lead to violent eruptions. So, I guess it’s reasonable to say that the Coens give us here a dark version of The Prairie Home Companion.

The movie starts with a whiteout shot where nothing can be seen initially. The first object that emerges out of this impenetrable view is a car towing what we learn later is a new tan Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera. The man bringing the car to the inn/restaurant/bar is Jerry Lundegaarde (William H. Macy). He registers under a false name, and he has stolen the car from the auto dealership where he works as part of a scheme to have two crooks kidnap his wife so he can extort a ransom from his well-to-do father-in-law. Given the level of deception and criminality involved it is possible that the lack of visibility at the opening of the movie signifies the moral blindness of the perpetrators.

The two men Jerry hires to do his dirty work are Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare). Carl is a talker, and right from the beginning he starts to question why a man would sink so low as to kidnap his own wife. But, he gets tongue-tied while speaking, receives a withering look from Gaear, and quickly capitulates to the immorality by wanting to take a look at the Ciera. When they approach Jerry’s house to take his wife, there is a telling scene about the two opposing worlds that exist in this story. Jerry’s wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) sits comfortably on her couch, industriously knitting, watching television, looking out through her picture window at the peaceful surroundings when a man with a ski mask approaches the window, trying to peer inside. Jean is caught like the proverbial deer in the headlights, unable to even think that anything bad is happening until the man smashes through the glass, basically shattering her safe life, wrenching her through the looking glass and delivering her into the dark side of this existence.

In Blood Simple, the Coens first explored how all intelligence and reason go out the door when people become obsessed with money. Here, the wrong decision to allow greed to rule leads to a domino effect where more and more dumb and violent acts follow each other. A policeman stops the two kidnappers because Carl negligently forgot to replace the dealer tags on the Ciera. When Jean, bound up in the back seat, makes a noise, the policeman becomes suspicious. Carl comes to violence slowly. He threatened Jean hesitantly when the cop approached by saying she must be quiet, “Or we’ll have to, ya’ know, shoot you.” Not his large partner. Gaear, with white hair, resembles the Abominable Snowman. He, unlike is babbling fellow criminal, hardly speaks. He has a frozen facial expression, almost like he is in hibernation. That is until his killer instincts kick in. He grabs a gun from the glove compartment, pulls the policeman’s head down against the open car window and shoots the officer in the head. Carl is shocked by the attack. As Carl tries to remove the body from the road, another car goes by with people witnessing the dead cop. The dominoes keep falling as Gaear pursues the other car at high speed, forcing them to go off the road and overturn their vehicle. Like a cold killer, Gaear assassinates the two.
In the middle of this mayhem is the loving couple comprised of Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, Oscar winner for Best Actress) and her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch). She is an unlikely hero at first glance. She is seven months pregnant, but it turns out can still handle the full duties as Brainerd’s Chief of Police. She and her husband dote on each other. When she is awakened about the homicides, Norm says he’ll make her eggs, despite her protests, telling her, “You have to have a breakfast.” Even though it is so cold out that the police car won’t start, she can rely on him and comes back into the house because the “Prowler needs a jump.” She encourages him in his hobby of painting birds, saying how important it is that his drawing will be on the three cent stamp because they are needed to make up the difference between the old and new rates. She takes time to pick up worms for his fishing, and he meets with her for a lunch buffet with Muzak playing in the background, showing how serene their life is compared to what Marge has to deal with in the outside world. They smile as they say that they love each other. In the midst of this violence and the bitter weather, these two are like a warm fireplace, and Marge can go out and fight crime knowing Norm has her back.

I’m not the first to point this out, but there are vertical blinds in Jerry’s office at the car dealership (owned by his father-in-law), which makes it look like he is in a virtual prison now because of his financial mishaps, and foretells his future place of residence behind bars. He is even dishonest in his job, as we see him deceive a customer about not charging him for a car sealant. He is fraudulently borrowing money based on the dealership’s cars to try to pay off some illegal debts he has incurred. Probably part of his problem is the belittling way he is treated by Jean’s overbearing father, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell), to whom he is obligated for giving him his livelihood. Wade says to him, after Jerry wants a loan to make a deal to better provide for his family, “Jean and Scotty never have to worry.” Which means Jerry is a lousy breadwinner, and Wade couldn’t care less what happens to his son-in-law if things go south financially. Jerry’s folksy speech and soothing voice mask a seething, twisted soul beneath. He seems to have forgotten what damage would come to his son finding out that his mother was kidnapped. The overhead shot of him walking in the snowy parking lot makes him look like a moving speck of life and emphasizes what a morally small man he is. His selfish, small-minded ideas are placed in ironic counterpoint by shots of the literally larger-than-life statue we see of Paul Bunyan, a mythical lumberjack who symbolized strength and heroic acts in the face of the adversary in this frozen expanse. We see Jerry’s inner self when he erupts scraping ice off of his windshield when Wade won’t lend him the money, and when he is confronted by Marge about the stolen tan Ciera that the dead policeman mentioned in his report. At the end he does not have the courage to face up to what he set in motion, but instead tries to run away from his crimes, and squeals like a caught animal when the police find him in a motel room.
Greed warps Wade who wants to horse-trade the amount to be paid for his daughter’s release. He is so covetous of his money that he wants to be the one meeting with Carl, dismissing Jerry by saying he will “muck” things up, and thus subverting Jerry’s plans to get the cash. Wade recklessly takes a gun with him and surprises Carl, who has caught the violence bug from Gaear. Angry about someone other than Jerry showing up, he shoots Wade dead, but not before Wade shoots him on the side of the face. He takes the ransom which turns out to be a million dollars instead of the $80,000 Jerry said would be the ransom. Carl then kills the parking attendant, eliminating a witness, just as Gaear had done. His greed kicks in now, taking only the eighty grand with him to deceive his partner, and, in an amazingly “blood simple” way, buries the rest of the money under the snow next to a long expanse of fence, with only a small ice scraper as a marker. When he gets back to the cabin where the two are staying he finds Jean dead on the floor, obviously killed by Gaear, because, as the snowman says, she was starting to scream. Despite the fact that Carl has a ton of money stashed away (if he can find it) it doesn’t slacken his thirst for money. He says the Ciera is his and threatens his partner to let him have it. He walks out the door but Gaear goes after him with an axe, so unmoved by murder that he puts on his hat before going outdoors to kill someone.

The film showcases Marge’s intelligence and investigative talents. She knows the whole scenario behind the killings on the road, concluding by the size of the footprints that there were two perpetrators of different size. She realizes that the patrolman’s license plate notation of “DLR” means that the automobile he stopped was recently acquired from a dealership. She tracks the car to Jerry’s place of employment. There is a scene with an Asian American man she knew a while back which many have thought doesn’t fit in well with the film. However, her finding out that this man lied about being married and his wife passing away leads Marge to conclude that some people, although appearing innocent, can be devious. It is after her discovery of this deception that she realizes that Jerry may be lying about the car being stolen from his lot. Her suspicions are confirmed when she presses him for an inventory check and Jerry runs off.

After finding out that the two kidnappers are staying at the lake she drives around looking for the car, which she discovers. The greed for this object turns out to be an anchor which sinks the criminals. She finds Gaear trying to get rid of Jerry’s body in a chipper. She confronts the killer, who flees, but Marge stops him with a shot to the leg. After she secures Gear in the back of the police car she simply but precisely sums up the devastation that comes from avarice, and how alien Gaear’s way of life is to hers. All these deaths have occurred “for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha you know that? And here ya’ are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.”

The film ends with stability restored, after so much chaos, in the warmth of the Gunderson’s bed, and we are encouraged by their hope for the future as the birth of their child approaches. As Norm rests his hand on Marge’s protruding belly, he says, “Two more months.” She repeats, “Two more months.”

The next film is Marnie.

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