Last summer, I took it upon myself to watch as many great films as I could, based on several “best movies” lists. No matter the decade or the genre, I wanted to immerse myself in the most celebrated movies of all time during my summer vacation (I’m a teacher) to expand my knowledge of classic cinema. While I carried out this project, some movies stood out more than others, and some were clearly marked with seeds of the Gospel.
I fell in love with One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, then I became mesmerized by Peter O’Toole’s performance in Lawrence of Arabia. I was not impressed by Gone with the Wind, so afterwards I decided to rebound with something different, something more modern. So I gave the 1990s a try.
I was happy to discover Digital Dream Door’s list of 100 best films of the 1990s. I had seen a few of the titles, and I knew that many of the films I hadn’t seen were highly acclaimed. I decided to start with the top 10 and work my way through the list. Ranked number six on the list at the time was Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 film Fargo. Because I had already enjoyed some other films written and directed by the Coen Brothers, including Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, and Raising Arizona, I had to give Fargo my time.
Boy, was I grateful!
Far from being a typical dark comedy, Fargo speaks to eternal themes like good and evil, selfishness and sacrifice, and the serious consequences of our moral decision-making. I even found some seeds of the Gospel embedded in the film. For this reason, Fargo was a pleasure to watch and re-watch. Each time I watched it—and even though the filmmakers are Jewish—I recognized that many essential elements of the Christian faith are conveyed in the film.
Background of the Film
Fargo is the story of a greedy car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard (played by William H. Macy), who dreams of “hitting it big” in his industry. When his business plans are foiled, he organizes the kidnapping of his wife with two inexperienced criminals. Their goal is to force his extremely wealthy father-in-law to pay a ransom, which ultimately will go to Jerry. It doesn’t go as planned. A trail of deadly crimes by the two incompetent criminals begin to add up. Marge Gunderson (played by Frances McDormand in an Oscar-winning role), the keenly aware—and extremely pregnant—small-town cop, investigates the murders and eventually unravels the conspiracy.
Thematically, Jerry Lundegaard exemplifies the wicked heart of mankind in an intriguing way. He is a car salesman—a profession often portrayed as someone who swindles and tricks innocent people into sometimes shady deals. In this film, he lives up to this stereotype. Jerry falsifies legal documents, engages in dishonest practices with clients, and even goes as far as plotting his wife’s kidnapping—all because of greed. He is so hungry for success and money that he plans an elaborate scheme to swindle his wealthy father-in-law out of nearly a million dollars. He embodies what Solomon said: “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money; nor he who loves wealth, with gain: this also is vanity” (Ecc 5:10).”
The Nature of Evil
The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares, “Sin creates a proclivity to sin” (1865). Later, on the topic of its proliferation, it states, “Thus sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them (1869).” When examining Jerry’s actions, the offenses against God pile high.
Borrowing from St. Paul, many say “Money is the root of all evils (1 Tim 6:10).” For Lundegaard, this phrase rings true. One man’s fault led to the death of many. Because of his disordered craving for money, a series of sins entered the world. Throughout the film, many innocent people are murdered. Their lives would not have ended if Lundegaard had not entered into his pact with the criminals at the beginning of the film. Many other sins would not have been committed. One could certainly say that many were implicated through that first offense by Jerry.
Likewise, in Sacred Scripture, one man’s trespass led to the condemnation of many. Jerry’s action set in motion a series of grave atrocities, just like the Fall. Just as Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the Garden of Eden causing sin to enter the world. Because of their sin, havoc and depravity plague the first ten chapters of Genesis.
In Genesis 4, Cain murders Abel. Their descendants perpetuate sinful behavior. Subsequently, in Genesis 6, God noticed the overwhelming wickedness of mankind, and “the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” Finally, in Genesis 9, even after God blots out the sins of the world through the flood, sin remained.
All this wrongdoing shows the spread of sin and how it violates our relationships with others. Consequently, mankind found itself helplessly in a sinful condition in the world. Thankfully, God did not abandon his people to fend for themselves in a hard-pressed battle against evil.
A Hero for the Occasion
The Catechism declares, “Jesus, the Son of God, freely suffered death for us in complete and free submission to the will of God, his Father. By his death he has conquered death, and so opened the possibility of salvation to all men (1019).” From the very early stages of salvation history, God planned a Redeemer for mankind.
In Fargo, the redeemer and restorer of righteousness is police chief Marge Gunderson. She portrays the unlikely hero that nobody expects to be the observant bearer of justice. In the beginning of the film, you are given the impression that she’s a small-town middle-of-nowhere cop. You come to discover over the course of the film that she is much more. She’s revealed to be a swift and critical thinker, picking up details from the initial murder, analyzing clues about a missing car from Lundegaard’s dealership, and finding holes in the narrative about the kidnapping case.
Without giving too much of the plot away, in the end, good formally triumphs over evil. The sting of death and sin has finally been obliterated and justice has been restored. And when it’s over, Marge Gunderson, speaking to one of the evildoers, somberly utters the famous line, “For what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tchya know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.”
Throughout the movie, piece by piece, she patches together the tapestry of the case. Marge is the one who traps evil and ends the cycle of wickedness and there is a sense of relief when she is finally victorious over moral corruption. Much like the carpenter from Galilee, she is an unlikely savior.
Remember, when Jesus came he was largely ridiculed and mocked after his claims of being the Son of Man or equal in relationship with God (Matt 26:64-65, Mk 3:20-28, Lk 5:17-24, Jn 10: 22-33). Some claimed he could not be the messiah because of who his parents were (Matt 13:55, Mk 6:1-6). His closest followers continually stumbled and failed to understand his messianic mission (Lk 18:31-34, Jn 13:21-29, Acts 1:6-8). With this in mind, is it any wonder that when Phillip told the news of Jesus to Nathanael, Nathaniel asked if anything good can come from Nazareth (Jn 1:46).
Despite unfair attacks and misconceptions about his character, Jesus rose to the occasion, consistently demonstrating that he was the promised anointed Messiah. Furthermore, he would become the new Paschal Lamb by his institution of the Eucharist and his sacrificial Death. As one of the Roman guards said at the moment of his death, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Matt 27:54, Mk 15:39). After his Resurrection, many finally began to realize who Jesus was. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus discovered Jesus in the breaking of the bread (Lk 24:13-35). Even the apostles came to a deeper understanding of who he really is (Jn 20:28, Acts 2:14-36).
In Fargo, the Coen Brothers expose what it means to be human and to wrestle with vices that are pleasurable but wound others and ourselves. Despite portraying the deadly aspects of sin, Fargo ultimately presents an image of a triumphant victor who conquers wrongdoing. The contrast between Lundegaard and Gunderson—the path of death and the path of righteousness—is one we all face during our journey. As a model of Christ, Marge overcomes superficial misunderstandings about her character and brings peace through heroic efforts against evil. Now, the world—and the state of Minnesota for that matter—can rest satisfied, knowing that goodness has prevailed.