I will never forget the first time I saw the Coen Bros. film Fargo.
I hated it.
And you will probably recall, perhaps from your own experience with the film, just how much seemingly everybody loved it. Well, maybe not everybody, but everybody in the kind of circles that contain folks who like Coen Bros. films. Also, keep in mind that in 1996, the year Fargo was released, Joel and Ethan Coen weren’t exactly the big deal they have become since. In fact it was arguably Fargo that essentially ushered in the beginning of their iconic status in Hollywood. Blood Simple made waves upon its release in 1984 and subsequent films made best-of lists but never quite garnered the brothers Coen the mainstream appeal that a dirty, ugly little film like Fargo inexplicably acquired for them.
Now, I don’t mean to sound as though I’m some old school ‘been there since the beginning’ Coen fan who disliked Fargo because of its broader appeal. Au contraire, Fargo was probably the first film I consciously saw by the Bros. and it introduced me to their names. Then Lebowski came and well, I worked backwards from there (only to find that I had indeed seen Raising Arizona as a child and enjoyed it to whatever capacity children can enjoy a film while watching it over the latest issue of Larry Hama’s GIJOE comic).
So anyway, here’s what happened after I saw Fargo and hated it. I walked around talking about how much I hated it, particularly William H. Macy’s character Jerry Lundegaard. I’d never seen a more disagreeable character, amidst a cast of characters among whom I disliked every action, every syllable, every accent. Everything about Lundegaard made me sick and provoked my ill-at-ease so he stayed on my mind and as a sort of reflex I struck up many a conversation about Fargo and how much I hated it until someone countered my ranting with a simple observation that changed everything: ‘Boy, for a movie you hate so much you sure do talk about it a lot.’ – and boom, there it was. I’d suddenly learned about an entire facet of movies and storytelling that I’d never considered before – the power of a truly despicable character to make a story great.
Not necessarily good. Not necessarily enjoyable, but great. As in unforgettable. As in three-dimensional and realistic. As in awe-inspiring.
I know it sounds ridiculous but it’s completely true. I’m betting even if you don’t agree with me or see where I’m coming from, if you look hard enough you will find some character from a movie or a book or a comic or whatever that was just such a bastard you will remember them until your dying day.
A bastard to judge all bastards by, so to speak.
Make no mistake about it that character is someone who is truly legendary in every sense of the word. And what the Coens and Macy made me see in Fargo is that a truly irredeemable character can hit so close to real life that they stick in the audiences’ craw as a mirror back into their everyday life – they’re amalgams of all the dirty rotten shit heels that thrive in the world around us and occasionally brush up against us and leave a bad taste in our mouth. The dickhead who hands it to you at your job, the landlord who makes your girlfriend’s life a living hell, the boss who screws your brother over and leads him to pull his hair out and get shit-face wasted seven nights of the week.
Well, after this shit-bulb came on I began to re-stagger my rantings on Fargo. I hated the characters but loved the film for being able to drive such a chill up my spine – the kind of chill that’s a direct result of watching a film and needing to drive to a public place afterward to walk around looking for the closest person you can find to the character. A real life avatar to pick a fight with and batter their teeth into the curb in order to exercise your frustration. The frustration that you know people like this are out there but just try not to think about it only now some goddamn filmmaker has gone and shown it to you up front and personal – and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Fast forward to now. There have been other despicable characters I’ve encountered (Although from almost ten years prior to Fargo Paul Reiser in Aliens ((or in general)) comes to mind) but no one that even comes close to Macy in Fargo. No one until the other night when despite what I thought was a weak beginning I sat down and watched Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!.
Matt Damon = Wow.
To me Matt Damon is not the most likable guy in Hollywood to begin with. And yet in the guise of Mark Whitacre Damon really crafted and performed a character of such amazing depth, in his shallowness, that I put it right up there with Macy in Fargo. I writhed uncomfortably in my seat the entire time, not because of antagonistic uncomfortable empathy, i.e. a character such as Mickey Rourke’s Randy in The Wrestler, but uncomfortable in the sheer motivation I was given via every second, every nuance of the performance to be lit up like chicken wire in a lightning storm to want to pounce on the guy on screen, roll a blade over his upper lip and exterminate that godawful moustache and then smother the very life from him with his ridiculous hair piece. I’m still fuming about the guy now, and he’s a character in a movie. Granted us fanboys invest a bit more in this type of thing that a lot of other folks, but I haven’t been this irritated by a fictional character since… well, since William H. Macy in Fargo.
Kudos Misters Macy and Damon, you are such fine performers that I’ve never quite been able to look at you again the same way since these defining, despicable roles.
Anyone else out there have a suggestion for a despicable ‘favorite’? Let’s start a list, have a movie night and then drive to the local mall to beat up dudes wearing affliction t-shirts. Who’s down?