“One cannot fail to see at the bottom of all these noble races the beast of prey, the splendid blond beast, prowling about avidly in search of spoil and victory; this hidden core needs to erupt from time to time, the animal has to get out again and go back to the wilderness: the Roman, Arabian, Germanic, Japanese nobility, the Homeric heroes, the Scandinavian Vikings--they all shared this need."-- Nietzsche
I just watched this film for the first time since it came out. It's the fourth in a series of Coen Brothers films being viewed by group I've been participating in. This is the only Coen brothers’ film I have ever liked, and I'm not sure why. I think it’s because the main character, Marge, played by Frances McDormand, seems so solidly human, at least in comparison to the other characters that typically inhabit the Coens' films. I can’t think of another Coen character that isn't depicted as a cartoon. But I wonder if the Coen brothers see Marge as positively as I do. It struck me when thinking about it later that perhaps her name was a reference to the solid but thoroughly conventional Marge Simpson who seems to be an oasis of sanity in a world full of people who have little or none of her sanity. Who doesn't like Marge? But then again, what does it mean to be sane? More on this later.
I think the movie is about the Coens’ desire to explore themes related to "civilization and its discontents". It focuses on the dissociation and alienation that particularly affects late modern Americans. It’s about how we have experiences and miss the meaning of them because of the ways in which our routinized habits of mind obscure what is happening all around us. The movie on one level studies the way most of us float through the day more or less unconsciously assuming that it will be a normal day doing what we routinely do. But then points to how there is an opportunity to break out of this routine with its patterned responses when abnormal things happen. Most of us resist what wants to break through. We filter it out, or we try to normalize these experiences in some way, We want to stay in the dream of normalcy, but occasionally our resistance is overcome--things happen that force us to snap out of it.
I frequently drive by Café Racer on my way to work, and I have thought sometimes how I would have reacted if I were in the room when that guy started shooting everybody. I think that my initial reaction would have been very much one of paralysis and disbelief: this can’t be happening; things like this don’t happen to me. I’d think there’s got to be some other explanation, this is someone’s idea of a joke. I wouldn’t know how to process it, I wouldn't know what to do. In other words, I would have reacted the way Jean Lundegaard does in this film just before she is kidnapped.
She is not able process what she sees when the kidnapper with the black mask comes to her front door. She sits there unable to understand or react. It doesn’t fit any narrative for her life that makes sense to her, so she has no 'routine' response. She is a nice lady whose life is completely circumscribed by patterned responses, and there are none for her to help her out in this abnormal situation. The enormity of what is about to happen to her is incomprehensible until the shock of the blond kidnapper's breaking through the glass wakes her from her trance of normalcy, and then her instincts take over. She’s no longer her patterned responses; she's no longer civilized; she's now a scared rabbit running from a predator. I think this is a basic theme for the movie: We are all living in a dream or trance, and we don’t wake up to reality, i.e., we don't overcome our alienation, until we embrace the fundamental human truth that we are either predator or prey.
The film presents Jean’s terror in such a way that we observe it in her behavior, but we don’t feel it. We see it from the amused point of view of the kidnappers/predators rather from her point of view as their prey, and so we don’t feel her fear the way most movies make you feel it. Most movies want you to identify with the innocent victim and to be outraged by the evil done to them, or they induce us to identify with the predators when they are hunting down the bad guys. Being a predator is socially permissible when he's the good guys hunting down the bad guy, i.e., when the bad guy are the prey. But In this movie there's a strange disconnect; we don't seem to identify with either.
We just watch like stupefied bystanders at a gang shoot-out on a crowded city street. Is this really happening? Or we watch this scene as if we’re watching a cat toying with a mouse before it finally kills it. Jean is not presented as a human being with whom we identify. We care about her as little as we care about the mouse. It’s interesting that when Jerry, Jean's hapless husband played by William H. Macy, gets caught by the police in the motel room near the end of the movie, he, too, is depicted as prey--he's a squealing, scared rabbit, not a human being. He's not even really a villain even though he initiated the whole bloody chain of events. he's beyond our moral judgments. He's just a scared, pathetic rabbit, a fish flapping on the dock. Neither Jean nor Jerry in these moments have any intrinsic dignity as human beings. Both are just squealing animals caught in a predator's trap.
But this is more than a phenomenological study of human reactions to extraordinary experiences. I think there is an "evangelical" theme here in the sense that it wants to confront us with a truth about what it means to be human that we'd rather not know about. Hannah Arendt famously wrote about the banality of evil with regard to Eichmann’s dispassionate bureaucratic approach to exterminating millions of human beings. There is something similar going on with the Coens as with other filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino—they want to explore the banality and meaninglessness of human existence, and they do it in the peculiar aesthetic they've developed regarding their depiction of violent death.
We're beyond good and evil here. We come away from observing the violent deaths depicted in these films thinking it's no big deal because the predators and prey are no big deal. They just are what they are: humans are just animals like other animals in an eat-or-be-eaten world. We see this attitude on display again when Jean’s father is shot and killed in the parking lot when he comes to deliver the money to the kidnapper played by Steve Buscemi. The scene conveys a mood of randomness, of absurdity, of the stupidity of both parties involved in this botched transaction. It's difficult to care about either of them. Neither is human; they're both mangy predators, wild beasts living tooth and claw on a bleak wilderness tundra disguised as a snowed-under, rooftop parking lot.
But then there’s Marge. Doesn’t the Coens' depiction of her disprove what I assert is the Coens' underlying anti-humanistic intent? She is presented as someone who has more dignity, warmth, humanity, and intelligence than the other people in the film who are all typical Coen cartoon characters. She makes the absurdity and the nihilism presented in the movie bearable because she seems to ground us in a healthy normalcy. The Coens want us to like her and identify her, and we do, as we do not with the other characters. But I’m not sure the Coens see her (or us who identify with her) in such a positive light. So here's my hypothesis regarding what I think they are trying to do: they want to subvert our sense that normal, "civilized" attitudes, behaviors, and morality codes have nothing to do with the really real, and they are always the source of our unhappiness and alienation. Civilization is a tradeoff we make to provide us a sense of safety and control, but the cost is to live deeply divided from ourselves, from who we really are.
Marge is a policewoman. I don't know how much violent crime Marge has to deal with on a routine basis, but police who must continuously deal with violent crime find a way of normalizing it and in doing so become desensitized to it. I think this is a metaphor for what we all do with all of our lived experience—we are fundamentally desensitized to it. Human beings are endlessly adaptable, and they will find ways to normalize even the most extreme experiences if they happen frequently enough. We cannot bear too much reality, so we find ways to filter it.
Marge is an exemplar of this kind of filtering. When she finds the first three corpses on the highway, she handles it with what seems a dispassionate professionalism. At first I thought this was a big part of what makes Marge so admirable, but as I considered it further, it struck me how odd her reactions were to finding these three murder victims. There is a peculiar, dissociated way in which she deals with the horror of what she is looking at. She says normal things—the dead trooper looks like a nice guy, etc.—but she is, like us, emotionally unaffected by the horror and the shock of what she is experiencing: it’s just another day on the job. She keeps the weirdness and horror of it under control by normalizing it as a matter of professional routine. So there's this odd feeling that she’s dealing with roadkill rather than with humans. I think that's the effect on the audience that the Coens's aesthetic wants to achieve. It's deliberate, and it's what makes their movies so interesting but also so repugnant.
This theme of keeping reality at bay by clinging to our routinizing filters sheds light on the scene where Marge meets Mike, the guy she knows from high school who calls her in the middle of the night. The Coens are playing with a comic incongruity here. When we hear his voice on the phone before we see him, he sounds like a classic Minnesotan. We picture some blond Norwegian or German American type with that earnest, perky, sing-songy, Lake Wobegon accent, but he turns out to be Japanese-American. The way he looks and the way he talks don't match up; they don't fit our patterned expectations. So it's funny, but they are also pointing to a disconnect between his racial/cultural heritage to which he has clearly lost any connection. He has no real identity; he is culturally and ontologically an ungrounded lost soul, and in late modern America his life is just a set of arbitrary patterned responses--except when he crosses the line--or breaks through the glass, as it were. He becomes then a parodic Nordic blond beast.
But until he does break through the glass in his tentative way, this meeting is very normal getting together of old friends. It’s all chit-chat and small talk, and then all of a sudden it gets weird when he comes over to her side of the table and puts his arm around her. it's then he breaks through the glass and commits an act of aggression that is motivated by deeper instinctual, animal needs. So Marge says something like, “Get back to the other side of the table, Mike.” On one level this is just a married woman getting hit on and telling this guy she's not interested. But really he’s crossed from one side of the glass to the other, and she, unlike Jean, is perfectly capable of pushing him back to the other side of the glass. So this scene is meant to contrast with Jean's experience of the blond beast. Marge can push him back, and this foreshadows her ultimate confrontation with the real blond beast later, but with Mike it's much easier to get things back to a normal, formulaic, conventionally approved get-together between old friends.
But isn’t that the Coens’ point? That “normalcy”--all of it—is something we fabricate to give us a false sense of control, a fabricated sense of identity, and to keep reality—the “really real” at bay, and that we can’t deal with the really real except in a dissociated way because we are so fundamentally out of touch or alienated from it. But that's the way we want it because while it might be boring, it's safe. We're able to tame it with our routines. This is essentially Hobbes's argument.
Of course Christianity and other religious traditions would agree that the human condition is one of deep alienation from the "Deep Real", but unlike the Coens, they assert that in addition to the basement or underworld, there is an upper story. The Coens believe that there is only a basement and the ground floor, which is where we live most of the time in our trance of normalcy. But they are interested in those events in our experience when this trance of normalcy is shattered, when the glass door is broken through and someone unsafe who should be locked down in the basement has got out and is coming to get us.
The thoughtful Christian, of course recognizes that there is a basement, but would assert that the whole point and purpose of life is to confront what lurks there and to transform it by aligning himself with things like love, beauty, goodness, by virtues nurtured by grace, which through human agency penetrate and reanimate the world otherwise mesmerized by the trance of routine.
As suggested above, I believe that the Coens’ mission as filmmakers is evangelical in this sense—they want to preach the “bad news” that they believe is obvious to anybody who thinks, but hardly anyone has the courage to face. For them there is no possibility of grace breaking through the ceiling to an upper story, because there is only the basement and the flimsy, alienating structure called civilization that we have built over it. For them, the really real, the truth that we’ve plastered over, is that we humans are all just talking animals, that we lack any real dignity, that the universe is purposeless, random, and cruel, and that any attempt to find meaning in it is as lame as Marge’s attempt in the scene with the blond beast in the back seat of her ‘prowler’ to make sense of the ridiculous events depicted in the movie
In that scene in the prowler, with the blond beast her captive in the back seat, she at last shows an emotional response to to these events. Just before it, in a scene reminiscent in its mood and aesthetic of the closing scenes of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, she has successfully hunted down her prey, gunned him down in the snow, and single-handedly brought him back as a trophy. But she doesn't understand the "significance" of it because she cannot face it. She can only come up with clichés to articulate what she's feeling and in doing so is basically scrambling her way back into the trance of normalcy. She asks him whether he wasn't taught that people are more important than money. Didn't he understand that? And of course the blond beast has no answer because such platitudes are as incomprehensible to him as his predatory behavior is to her.
He knows he's a predator, and to eat or be eaten is all he's about. He understands what Marge in her impregnable conventionality cannot--that she too is a predator, but that she cannot embrace it. She just thinks she's doing her job, which is a way of pushing to the other side of the glass the real significance of what she just did. So I think the Coens are gently making fun of Marge here. She’s the nice, sane, conventional Marge Simpson trying to make sense of something that fundamentally makes no sense in conventional categories. The bottom line is that he’s a predator, and killing is what he does--and he hasn't a molecule of alienation in his uncivilized being. She's a predator, too, a very good one, but she backs away from embracing the really real of it.
Most of us are like Marge and so we think she's a good person, but I think that the Coen brothers are saying something different about her. They are saying, “You’re a ‘nice’ lady, Marge, but you are as out of touch with reality as all the others. You—like everyone watching this movie--refuse to understand the real truth of what has just been revealed to you when you hunted down and captured the blond beast. That you too are a beast, that you are perhaps even more than that, the goddess Diana, the huntress god. But you backed away from it and into the safe, but dreary conventional platitudes of your life as 'Marge'. You are retreating from the vital 3-D vital world on the other side of the glass, to the 2-D cartoon world inhabited by everyone who is living in the trance of normalcy" where it's boring and safe.
Unlike that other conventional American everyman Walter White awakened from the trance of normalcy, you decided not to take your walk on the wild side. You had the experience but missed the meaning. So at the end of the movie, rather than learning from what you just saw and did, you push it back to the other side of the table as you pushed Mike back. Instead of dealing with the really real truth about who we humans really are, you retreat from it. At the end of the movie you realize that you crossed that line, that you broke through the glass, but that you had to get yourself back to your normal life with your goofy, insecure, overweight, balding husband.
What was his name? Homer? Maybe not--too obvious. But it should have been. Because it turns out that Marge, while not a cartoon character like the others in the film, chooses to live in the cartoon world we call normal reality.