- The Coen Brothers’ “Fargo,”
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The Coen brothers and their films have fascinated audiences and critics alike as much for their distinct yet unpredictable vision as for their refusal to conform to the traditional principles of Hollywood homogeneity. The body of work resulting from the twenty-year professional collaboration of Joel and Ethan Coen defies easy definition or categorization; unlike the comfortable familiarity fostered by the careers of most other Hollywood "auteurs," arguably the magnetic draw of the Coens is knowing only to expect the unexpected when the lights go down and the curtain goes up. The new collection of critical essays and interviews edited by William Luhr, The Coen Brothers' "Fargo," seeks to interrogate the Coen phenomenon via their most critically and commercially successful film to date.
Upon first consideration, a volume singularly dedicated to one Coen brothers film may seem too narrowly focused or even indulgent—especially in light of the relative dearth of critical material published on their work in general—but in fact the opposite is true. The Coen Brothers' "Fargo" aims for depth, not breadth, and thus avoids the potential pitfalls of a sprawling survey of still-nascent careers. The collection offers readers a gateway to future critical consideration of Coen films in a generous yet lean volume rather than attempting to construct a singular cohesive statement about such a diverse body of films as theirs.
As with the other volumes in the Cambridge University Press Film Handbook series, The Coen Brothers' "Fargo" applies a multiperspectival approach to one culturally and critically significant film. In his introduction Luhr justifies Fargo's place alongside the likes of Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954), Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953), and Persona (Bergman, 1966), not only recognizing it as a remarkable film but equally acknowledging the insight it provides into the Coens' career, the challenges it poses to traditional cinematic genre structures, and its dynamic engagement with the entrenched value structure of middle-American culture.
Luhr notes that Fargo (1996) is a particularly useful film for the series "because the very diversity of its characterizations leads viewers in varied, at times contradictory, and often provocative directions" (2). The film apparently has the same effect on the book's various contributors, who have selected a variety of sites of entry into the film and navigate the text with equally valuable yet divergent critical approaches. Considering Fargo within the contexts of postmodernity, feminism, and body politics, among others, the essays are sufficiently theoretical without depending on theory. The collection strikes a nice balance between the rigors of critical discourse and the accessibility of straightforward language and reasoning that is rarely simplistic or reductive.
The Coen Brothers' "Fargo" offers the reader a wide spectrum of critical inquiry, and yet the book's [End Page 98] most fascinating and insightful moments are produced when the authors each seize upon a few of the film's core elements in their respective essays and emerge with their own unique conclusions. Tracing the varied (and often contradictory) interpretations of just the town's towering statue of Paul Bunyan alone is a satisfying project. It is on these occasions that the collection of essays proves valuable on multiple levels; beyond exploring one important film and perhaps because of this tight focus, the compilation exposes the highly individual and contextual process and practice of meaning making as well as the fluid nature of critical discourse.
Luhr provides a broad introduction to the collected essays, presenting the scope and direction of the volume and highlighting the central questions that will come under critical consideration in the following chapters. He establishes key differences between the Coens and other American independent filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch or Gus Van Sant, asserting that the brothers "do not see themselves as avant-garde or experimental filmmakers and do not want to make films for an elite audience" (5). Rather, their interest lies in entertaining a wide audience, an objective that has required the Coens to "adjust their vision to distribution realities" (5). By...