Comedy and Tragedy in Fargo (Harriet Pollard)

In Northrop Frye’s discussion of New Comedy in The Argument of Comedy [1], he draws important parallels between comedy and tragedy. He makes two points: that “tragedy is really implicit or uncompleted comedy,” and that “comedy contains a potential tragedy within itself.” He draws from Dante’s commedia to suggest that even tragic stories, when looked at as part of a larger narrative, can be funny. The links between the two genres are undeniable, and when skilfully combined, they can contrast and compliment each other very well.

An example of this is the film Fargo. It is classified as a ‘black comedy’, as are many of the Coen brothers’ other films, and I would argue that they are filmmakers who are particularly successful at blending comedy with tragedy.

The film follows the story of a kidnapping and blackmail plot that goes horribly wrong, leading to multiple murders – as seen in the clip. This is, on the surface, a very dark concept (made darker by the film’s claim that it is based on a true story), but the Coen’s are able to draw a lot of humour from it. They rely on the actors’ performances as they bring out the characters’ regional accents and mannerisms, as well as portraying their questionable decisions in the face of crisis. Many of the film’s characters are pitiful in their actions and choices, something that leads to a lot of the film’s tragedy, while at the same time being one of the film’s main sources of comedy.

In this scene Marge is inspecting a bloody crime scene. As she talks with her deputy, their cheerful, mild-mannered Minnesotan accents seem out of place with the scene around them, as does Marge’s pregnancy. This contrast between the violent plot of the film and the humorous characters (some endearing, some pathetic) gives the film its unique tone.

[1] Northrop Frye, “The Argument of Comedy,” English Institute Essays (New York: Columbia,1949), 58-73.

3 comments

  1. How is comedy that interplays either alongside or with in tragedy find the comic heroes victorious when not concluded with marriage or even a triumph over the senex. Or is tragedy instead an absurd back drop used to make the mundane funny and the “larger plot” is just one extended joke?

  2. It’s very jarring, and quite hilarious, to see how the characters retain their friendly personalities even in the face of this brutal crime. It adds a sense of authenticity and an endearing quality to the clip that totally take it away from the realm of tragedy and into comedy. Great find.

  3. I think the most interesting aspect of all of the Coen Brothers darker stories is the interplay between the ordinary and extraordinary through dialogue. This clip is a great example of this as the characters dialogue is humorously mundane and accented (in the sense of being tied heavily to a location. If this scene were depicted in tragic means I feel the character’s dialogue would reflect how out of their depth they were, however the choice to have characters discuss the situation in their casual yet professional manner brings levity to the scene.

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