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  • Praising Minnesota: The Coens’ “Fargo” and the Pressures of Stoic Community
  • Bill Chaloupka (bio)

Ill-fated folk! For would they but obey With understanding heart, from day to day Their life were full of blessing, but they turn Each to his sin, by folly led astray. Glory would some thro’ bitter strife attain And some are eager after lawless gain; Some lust for sensual delights, but each Finds that too soon his pleasure turns to pain.

— Cleanthes the Stoic, “Hymn to Zeus” 1

“Fargo,”2 the Coen brothers’ 1996 movie about a lurid series of crimes set in Minnesota, reveals a crucial point about the ongoing theoretical discussion of community and values. Calls to “community” resolutely insist that social business be discussed in the sober and somber dialect of conscious, rational decision and commitment. Whether in sophisticated intellectual argument or the popularized cannon of William Bennett, community business is done in the voice of the preacher, the legislator, and the teacher—in their most civil and civic modes. “Fargo” reminds us of the actual social implementations stoic communitarianism requires of its subscribers. Social practices—the daily habits, behavioral ticks, and adaptive strategies brought to theoretical prominence as an analytical field by feminists, postmodernists, and others—form the actual terrain on which communities build themselves by stoic precepts.

The central character of “Fargo,” Brainerd Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), has barely been introduced before we see her at one of a cop’s worst moments, surveying a bloody crime scene. Prominently pregnant with her first child, Marge picks her way over the snow and ice, locating bodies and commenting to her deputy in a tone of voice one might use when locating early tomatoes in the backyard garden. “It’s in the head and the hand there. Guess that’s a defensive wound.” Of all the post-Tarantino violence films, “Fargo” may be the most defensible; the legitimacy of the stoic’s claim is established at extremes, when it is most vividly tested.

Throughout “Fargo,” everyday banter becomes anthemic. Everybody except one of the hired kidnappers speaks with a prominent Minnesotan accent. Sentences end with a grammatically unnecessary “then,” “here,” “now,” “yah,” or “there,” with words clipped and inflection rising as members of the clan seek reassurance that the public codes are still in order. “That’s the best we can do here.” “I’m doing really super there.” The lilt becomes slower and more precise when each speaker most needs a reminder of the community values that will, they hope or believe, carry them through whatever dark moment presents itself. At such times, the cliches become almost infantile: “there in a jif,” “okey dokey,” “thanks a bunch.” Nietzsche explained the debilitating quality of professional discourse deployed by preachers, teachers, and social workers. But while Nietzsche resorted to aphorism, exaggeration, and outrage in an attempt to evade replicating the discourses he criticized, the Coens use cinema to provide a glimpse of the daily life generated in a society that takes its stoic communitarianism very seriously. If we were to ask a historian or sociologist about the sources of Minnesotanism, she would likely talk about ethnicity, religion, and ethos. Ask a film director, and he responds with manners, habits, and modes of speech. “Fargo” is loaded with actor “business”—the small pieces of behavior that compose a culture.

“Fargo” portrays a stoicism that requires extraordinarily strong social norms, constantly reinforced by habitual public and private performance. When Marge meets former classmate Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) in a hotel bar there are conventions to be kept up, to insure that loyalty and remembrance persist as value commitments. Cynics in the audience may immediately assume that Mike is manipulating Marge, but when she later finds out that his deception has been profound, Marge is put off her perfect tone—that persistent chin-up outlook that carried her through murder, frustration, and even pregnancy without so much as a hitch. The next morning, her anxiety shows in an interview at perpetrator Jerry Lundegaard’s (William H. Macy) car lot office (“Oh, for Pete’s sake, for Pete’s sake. He’s fleeing the interview! He’s fleeing the interview!”). The repetition shows that doubt...