What Happened to the Apple-Ipecac Pie?: The Coen Brothers and Shake­spear­ean Tragedy

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In Blood Simple, the Coen brothers’ first feature film, Marty discovers that his wife, Abby, is involved with a younger man, Ray. Marty goads Ray by telling him that, one day, he’ll suspect Abby of cheating on him, and she’ll say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Ray. I ain’t done nothing funny.” Later, when Ray suspects Abby of underhandedness, she responds, “I haven’t done anything funny.” Although she’s being honest, Ray, of course, can’t believe her.

It’s a page out of Shakespeare’s Othello. As Desdemona departs from Venice to Cyprus, having just eloped with Othello, her embittered father, Brabantio, warns him, “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see; / She has deceiv’d her father, and may thee.” A few acts later, when the villain Iago is working hard to convince Othello of Desdemona’s infidelity, he inserts the memory of Brabantio’s parting words. “She did deceive her father, marrying you,” he reminds Othello. The repetition of Brabantio’s advisory all but ensures that Iago will dupe Othello into believing his lies about Desdemona.

What we have here is wrenching irony, the kind that makes an audience cringe over the misperception that a naïve protagonist is being set up to make. This is irony that whispers of dark humor, irony meant to induce humility or even to humiliate. It is a signature of the Coen brothers’ crime stories and a frequent component of Shakespearean tragedy. Ray’s misunderstanding of Abby’s actions, like Othello’s of Desdemona’s, heads down a tragic path.

The Coen brothers’ later movie Fargo spawned a brand out of the visceral irony that emanates from plays like Othello, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet. The TV series, so far comprising four seasons (a fifth is on the way), channels every note of the movie, down to the midwestern accents and its epigraph: “This is a true story. . . .” (Season 4, however, includes an innovative frisson of surrealism.) A stone-faced Chris Rock as Loy Cannon, godfather of an all-Black mafia in mid-century Kansas City, vies for power in season 4 with the Italian mob, led by Josto Faddo (Jason Schwartzman). If the audience learns to expect anything after watching a few hours of the show’s copious bloodshed, it’s that the giddiness at having grasped power is fleeting. All attempts to hold on to power are doomed by unforeseen circumstances. Horatio’s phrase for the action in Hamlet—“purposes mistook”—matches perfectly the unintended consequences of actions both large and small in writer Noah Hawley’s imagined world.

Take, for example, the apple pie that, in season 4 of Fargo, nurse Oraetta Mayflower doses liberally with Ipecac and then, anonymously, leaves on the doorstep of the Smutny family, who live across the street. What is her motive for such malevolence? Later in the series, Oraetta discovers that Ethelrida Pearl Smutny, the precocious teenage daughter of a couple who run a funeral home, has discovered that she hoards controlled substances like laudanum and that she filches valuable keepsakes from the hospital patients she routinely poisons or smothers. But at the point when Oraetta delivers the pie, she knows little about the family except that the parents are of different races. She has made disparaging remarks to Ethelrida’s white father about the daughter’s mixed race. Apparently, Nurse Mayflower—of the suggestively WASPy last name—has it out for Black people and for miscegenation. The emetic seemingly represents her own reaction to the Smutnys’ family profile.

Yet Oraetta’s best laid plans go bizarrely awry, and she never the wiser. No one in the family becomes interested in the pie before Swanee, the young beloved of Zelmare, Ethelrida’s aunt, gorges on it. These two escaped jail birds are about to stage a robbery to help Ethelrida’s parents out of a debt they owe Cannon. Problematically, they rob Cannon’s betting operation. During the heist, the Ipecac does its work on Swanee, and she vomits all over the money and the bag it’s in. Later, having washed off the bills in a bathtub, Zelmare presents the bag to her sister and brother-in-law. The latter takes it to Cannon, who catches a whiff of the telltale vomit, and realizes that the very people who robbed him a few days earlier have attempted to pay him off with his own money. After turning over the cash to a corrupt cop to escape arrest, Cannon tracks down the two thieves and co-opts them into helping him against the Italians. Ultimately, the involvement of Cannon with Swanee and Zelmare leads to his death. Meanwhile, Oraetta’s penchant for poisoning results in her downfall. She offers her hospital-administrator boss a strychnine-laced macaroon that, for all the agony it inflicts, stops short of killing him.

This tangled web of a plot, in which no character can foresee—or indeed intends—the outcome of an isolated action, is loosely held together by two interrelated objects, first the pie, then the bag of tainted money. So, too, does the handkerchief in Othello thread its way through a narrative in which “trifles light as air” can wreak enough havoc on a man’s mind to induce him to commit spousal murder. While trying to use the handkerchief to bind Othello’s aching head, Desdemona drops it, leaving it for her companion Emilia to pick up and hand over to her husband, Iago, who has “a hundred times / Woo’d” her “to steal it.” Inclined as she is to surrender it to Iago without question, merely “to please his fantasy,” she nevertheless asks him what he intends to do with it. He tells her, in so many words, to mind her own business, and her retreat from his characteristic abuse determines the rest of the play.

Once in possession of the handkerchief, Iago wastes no time using it to further cultivate Othello’s unfounded suspicions of Desdemona’s infidelity with Cassio, asserting that “such a handkerchief / (I am sure it was your wive’s) did I to-day / See Cassio wipe his beard with.” The humiliation of imagining that his “first gift” to Desdemona has become his subordinate’s napkin compounds in the next scene with Desdemona’s inability to produce the handkerchief at Othello’s request. Rather than confess she’s misplaced it, she shrinks from Othello’s agitation by lying to him repeatedly. “I say, it is not lost,” she protests. Emilia has predicted to Iago that, when Desdemona realizes she doesn’t have the handkerchief, “she’ll run mad.” Yet Emilia keeps it from her anyway, and, so forceful is Iago’s hold on her, she continues to withhold it even when she witnesses Othello’s fury over Desdemona’s inability to show it to him. She stands by, a few scenes later, as she watches Othello strike Desdemona to the ground in a jealous rage.

Emilia’s silence enables Iago to stage a scene for Othello, who watches in hiding, in which Cassio seems to have presented the handkerchief that Desdemona gave him to a courtesan. In reality, Iago has planted the handkerchief in Cassio’s chamber and, upon finding it, Cassio has asked the other woman to copy its embroidery onto another piece of cloth. At points when Othello’s resolve to punish Desdemona wanes, Iago needs only to cue him. “But if I give my wife a handkerchief—,” he says to Othello, again suggesting that the handkerchief is concrete proof of her betrayal.

The dramatic irony to which Othello is subjected, arising from Emilia’s unwillingness to divulge the handkerchief’s whereabouts, culminates after the damage of her reticence is done. Once Othello has smothered Desdemona and Emilia recognizes Iago’s role in misleading him, she publicly denounces her husband as a liar while revealing that she knew—intuitively? subconsciously?—of Iago’s machinations much earlier. “I thought so then,” she says, probably looking back to her unanswered question about why Iago wants the handkerchief in the first place. Earlier, in fact, when she and Desdemona are trying to ascertain the source of Othello’s insecurity, Emilia conjectures, in Iago’s presence, that “some eternal villain, / Some busy and insinuating rogue” is misleading Othello regarding Desdemona. “Fie,” retorts Iago, “there is no such man; it is impossible.” That Emilia has known, on several levels, of Iago’s capacity for abuse sharpens the irony in Othello’s justification of murdering Desdemona. “I saw it in his hand,” he says of Cassio’s possession of the handkerchief.

To watch a work of Coen brothers’ noir is almost inevitably to conjure the painful gap in Shakespearean tragedy between what should be and what is: the letter from Friar Lawrence to Romeo that never makes it to plague-ridden Mantua; the false report that Cleopatra is dead, leading Antony to kill himself; the information that Claudius can’t pray, revealed only to the audience and rendering Hamlet’s decision not to kill him at prayers irrelevant. In every instance, characters and audience alike encounter the folly of seizing or believing that they have control. The intricate plotting of these works isn’t an end in itself. It steers toward an awakening: in no time, those who grasp for control wind up in over their heads. And that goes double for grasping by violence.

That Joel Coen has now brought forth a film version of Macbeth is, thus, hardly surprising. Neither is his characterization of the film as a “thriller,” a genre not imposed by Coen but embedded in the play to be discovered by a filmmaker of Coen’s sensibility. “It’s interesting how Shakespeare sort of pre-figured certain tropes in American thriller and crime literature that were common in the early part of the 20th century,” says Coen. The edge in this production is the post-child-bearing age of the protagonists, whose last chance at worldly glory is the Scottish crown. Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, both in their sixties, have long demonstrated the sangfroid for the roles. (Washington is the first person of color to play Macbeth on film.) The prophecies of the Wëird Sisters, for the most part, exert the powerful influence in the movie that they do in the play, paralleling the handkerchief in Othello and the pie in Fargo, season 4.

As Joel Coen’s first project independent of his brother, Ethan, the film reflects both brothers’ signature vision of power acquired by violence. A statement from the New York Film Festival, where the film premiered in September of 2021, describes that vision as “a frightening depiction of amoral political power-grabbing that, like its hero, ruthlessly barrels ahead into the inferno.”

Those extravagant words fashion Macbeth as a kind of Ray or Jerry Lundegaard from Fargo, whose naïveté brings about far-reaching destruction. The formula of the unseasoned protagonist who finds himself out of his depth is so prominent in the Coens’ work that it can distract attention from villains—ruthless villains—who, like Iago, set the violence in motion or keep it coming. Blood Simple’s Loren Visser (M. Emmett Walsh) is a vile private detective who makes stooges out of other characters in the film. They are shady themselves, but next to him, they look like choir children. By the time Fargo’s Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) feeds his accomplice Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) into a woodchipper, they’ve both wreaked enough havoc in Brianerd, Minnesota, to keep police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) busy investigating for the movie’s duration. And who can forget Javier Bardem’s blood-curdling embodiment of Anton Chigurh, the affect-less, machinating killer in No Country for Old Men?

How villainous is Macbeth? How responsible is he himself for the suffering he inflicts on Scotland? How much influence do the Wëird Sisters—the witches—have over Macbeth’s choices? For that matter, how much influence does Lady Macbeth exert? The degree of Macbeth’s agency, versus the witches’ or his wife’s, is one of the play’s most compelling questions. Would Macbeth kill Duncan and, later, McDuff’s family without the equivocations of the Wëird Sisters (all three played in the movie by the stunningly gifted Kathryn Hunter), whose prophecies play upon Macbeth’s imagination as the handkerchief does on Othello’s?

What about the dogged promptings of Lady M? As in many of the Coens’ films, searching for a single source of corruption is beside the point. The characters’ inclination toward evil leaves them open to evil, easy prey to those capable of even greater degeneracy.

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In his film version of Macbeth, Coen addresses the matter of tragic cause through developing Shakespeare’s original character Rosse. A Scottish nobleman of somewhat ambiguous intentions and a relatively small role, he transforms into a full-fledged villain on the order of Anton Chigurh. An ultra-lean Alex Hassell, dressed head-to-toe in a fitted sheath of cloth that evokes chain mail and that would seem at home on a Parisian runway, plays the androgynous character without a trace of emotion but for an occasional mischievous smirk. Early on, as Duncan delivers lines meant to apply to the traitorous Thane of Cawdor, the camera focuses instead on Rosse. “There’s no art,” says Duncan, “To find the mind’s construction in the face. / He was a gentleman on whom I built / An absolute trust.” Rosse is hereby set up as untrustworthy from the start—a traitor on the order of Cawdor—a characterization he fulfills at every turn.

In his first extra-textual role, Rosse substitutes for the “servant” who announces to Macbeth in 3.1 that the men whose arrival he’s been expecting are waiting outside. These are the poor wretches Macbeth will convince to murder Banquo and his son, Fleance; because the witches have prophesied that Banquo’s offspring will become kings, his very existence threatens Macbeth’s sense of security on the throne. Concocting lies about how badly Banquo treats the men, Macbeth leads them to conclude that they will be free of oppression only if Banquo dies. For their part, says one of the assassins, they are so “incens’d” with the “vile blows and buffets of the world” that they are “reckless” enough to do Macbeth’s dirty work.

Two scenes later, when the assassins convene to execute Banquo and Fleance, they are joined, to their surprise, by a third murderer. Who this mysterious addition is and why he materializes out of the blue has long been a vexing question about the play. (One theory is that he is Macbeth himself.) Although Coen isn’t the first director to designate the third murderer as Rosse, he suggestively augments the role. Banquo is killed, but Fleance escapes, ordered by his dying father to “fly, Fleance, fly!” This is the last we see of Fleance in the play, but Coen’s Macbeth has Rosse chase down Fleance, who is hiding in tall grass. Later in the film, the audience sees that Rosse has captured Fleance and left him in the custody of an old man, who in the play makes an earlier cameo appearance in conversation with none other than Rosse. In that scene, Shakespeare’s Rosse waxes moralistic about the heinous crime of regicide and its aftermath—for example, he reports that King Duncan’s “Beauteous and swift” horses, reflecting the unnatural killing of a king, “turn’d wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,” and threatened “War with mankind.” Coen’s Rosse engages in no such moralizing; the lines just cited are reassigned to the old man (also played by a now-bearded Kathryn Hunter). Rather, having kidnapped Fleance, Rosse pays the old man for services rendered, scoops up the boy and plops him on his horse, and rides off without signaling what will happen next. The movie ends as the filming of Rosse on horseback gives way to a profuse murder of crows ascending in flight from below the screen. (Would it surprise anyone if Coen intended the implicit pun on a “murder”—flock—of crows?) In the film’s opening and thereafter, crows—carrion eaters—symbolize rapacious greed and evil; they also sometimes embody the Weïrd Sisters and thus connect Rosse to them.

With this altered plot point, Coen introduces an anxious open-endedness to a play that could be considered the most resolved tragedy in Shakespeare’s canon—and satisfyingly resolved at that. Shakespeare’s Macduff slays and then, offstage, beheads Scotland’s corrupt king, proclaiming, “the time is free.” Fleance has escaped, ensuring the inauguration and perpetuation of the Stuart royal line, from which England’s sitting king, James I, has descended. Coen underscores his choice to raise doubt about the action’s closure by omitting from Macbeth’s second encounter with the witches the well known “show of eight KINGS,” the eighth “with a glass in his hand, and BANQUO last.” This prophecy—which joins the one about Macbeth’s invincibility from anyone of “woman born” and the other about his unassailability “until / Great Birnan wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him”—reveals unequivocally to the audience that Banquo’s royal line will prevail through Fleance. Coen’s Macduff, like Shakespeare’s, beheads Macbeth—with visually extravagant gore—but Coen’s removal of the “show of kings” creates uncertainty about Scotland’s future. This irresolution mirrors the film version of his predecessor, Roman Polanski, who in his Macbeth conjures uncertainty in his own way: at the very end, Donalbain, the brother of the newly crowned king, Malcolm, rides on a horse past the witches’ hut; intrigued, he dismounts and is last seen entering the hovel, where he’ll presumably be tempted, repeating Macbeth’s history.

Coen darkens and expands Rosse’s role in myriad ways. One instance involves the assassination, ordered by Macbeth, of Lady Macduff and her children. Shakespeare’s Rosse is onstage with Lady Macduff and her son just before the assassins arrive. His presence is a mystery. Why is he there? Perhaps to ease Lady Macduff into the knowledge that her husband has fled to England? What does he know? Is he aware that Lady Macduff and her children are about to be sacrificed? He seems to commiserate with Lady Macduff’s woe at her husband’s sudden, unexplained disappearance, and he abruptly takes his leave of her by implying that, if he should stay any longer, he would bring “disgrace” upon himself by weeping. Moments later, the assassins enter and execute the Macduffs. The most charitable reading of Shakespeare’s Rosse here is that he’s ineffectual, even weak, but nevertheless unaware of the upcoming assassination. The least charitable is that he’s a part of the assassination plan, as he clearly is in Coen’s film. When Coen’s Rosse notices the assassins on the way through a window, he doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t warn Lady Macduff. Whether he’s in cahoots with the assassins or simply emblematic of their evil is anyone’s guess. Coen dispenses with Shakespeare’s trademark ambiguity and, in keeping with the sharp black and white angles that dominate the film’s set, substitutes intentional cruelty, though why Rosse would delight in the assassination is also obscure.

Rosse’s schadenfreude emerges in a subsequent scene, where he travels to England after the assassination to inform Macduff of his family’s murder. Even in Shakespeare, the fit is uncomfortable: when Rosse last appeared, he abandoned Lady Macduff and her family to be killed, whether or not he meant to, and now, before telling Macduff what happened, he hedges and virtually lies to Macduff by saying that his family “were well at peace when I did leave ’em.” But he knows full well that they’re all dead, as he finally proceeds to confess to Macduff. What is the source of his hemming and hawing? Does he feel guilty about not having attempted to prevent the killings? He seems a character untethered by conviction, yet, here again, intriguingly defiant of a definitive reading.

Not so Coen’s Rosse: because he’s seen the assassination coming—possibly even participated in the plot—his later evasion with Macduff is nothing short of manipulative. He appears to take pleasure in playing with Macduff’s emotional vulnerability, delaying and intensifying his inevitable grief over losing his wife and children. Macbeth’s evil is gradually acquired over the course of the play; Rosse’s, in Coen’s version, seems innate. It’s echoed in Hunter’s old man, who grins with pleasure when he tells Rosse of Duncan’s rebellious horses, “’Tis said, they eat each other.” What’s more, it’s reflected in the witches’ grins as they narrate how they’ve caused human misery and as they concoct their brew from such ingredients as a “Finger of birth-strangled babe.”

Rosse’s prominence in the film is an index to Coen’s appropriation of Shakespeare, which is further illustrated in the “England scene,” so-called for its setting. Coen has deleted nearly all of this long scene, which consists of a lengthy conversation between Macduff and Malcolm, the rightful king of Scotland. Although it is reputed to be the most boring scene in all of Shakespeare, it is crucial to a play about ridding Scotland of its corrupt king. By pretending to be corrupt himself, Malcolm orally tests Macduff to see if he can trust him morally; when Macduff finds Malcolm’s feigned self-description as a moral monster unacceptable, he passes Malcolm’s test. Malcolm now knows that Macduff won’t countenance unscrupulous behavior even to cleanse his country of corruption. The absence of this exchange between Malcolm and Macduff, which occurs in Shakespeare just before Rosse’s entrance to share the news about the Macduffs’ assassination, points to something larger about Coen’s interests: they are less about moral recovery than about moral degeneration. In the play, the redemption of Scotland begins in the exchange between Malcolm and Macduff about their shared morals and vision for renewal. In Coen’s film, such redemption doesn’t get off the ground.

If Coen’s Macbeth doesn’t render the moral framing that largely defines Shakespeare’s play, neither does it dwell on the contours of conscience that inflect the Macbeths’ story from beginning to end. Over and again, Coen dispenses with lines of Lady Macbeth that portray her as vulnerable to the very pangs of conscience that she chides her husband for allowing to inhibit him. In one telling example, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth intimates early on—long before she goes mad—that she is prone to crippling guilt: having sent Macbeth into Duncan’s chamber to murder him, she admits to the audience why she left the daggers for Macbeth to find rather than slay Duncan herself. “Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done’t.” The line, left out of Coen’s version, presages Lady Macbeth’s later susceptibility to insanity.

So do lines that introduce a later scene in which the Macbeths are coming to understand that annihilating Duncan hasn’t given them carefree access to Scotland’s throne. Lady Macbeth’s objective in the scene is to quiet her husband’s agitated mind at the thought of Banquo’s mere existence. As she awaits Macbeth’s arrival, though, she confesses her own agitation to the audience. “Nought’s had, all’s spent,” she says,

Where our desire is got without content;
’Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.

These are remarkable words coming from a character who has professed no qualms about regicide. She is as unsettled as Macbeth will prove to be when he enters a few lines later. Belatedly, she has realized that her rise to power has come at a troubling, soon to be unbearable, price. Coen cuts the speech.

McDormand’s performance of the illegitimate queen doesn’t hinge on the story of her defeat by her own conscience. Rather, she reprises the part of the femme fatale that launched her career as Abby in Blood Simple. Her Lady Macbeth is emotionally detached. But for the presence of the “damn’d spot” of blood that won’t wash out of her hands, her madness could derive from factors other than guilt—say, her childlessness and thus the threat of losing her royal position. In one provocative moment, in fact, she is filmed in her madness cradling her hand on her chest as if she were holding a baby. It is one of few tangible markers of her disappointed motherhood in a version of Macbeth that, although advertised as centering on the protagonists’ post-childbearing age, makes scant reference overall to that matter.

Even Lady Macbeth’s death is separated from her feelings of guilt. The play implies that, no longer able to live with her guilt, she hurls herself from a height sufficient enough to take her own life. In Coen’s handling, a pernicious Rosse spies her at the top of a long, stone staircase that he starts climbing toward her, suggesting that he coaxes or outright causes her fall. The next thing the audience sees of her, she is dead at the bottom of the stairs. In locating so much of the play’s wickedness in Rosse, Coen deflects moral responsibility from the tragic protagonists. Characteristically, Shakespeare indirectly but clearly points to Macbeth’s culpability where the audience least expects it—through the comic, drunken Porter, who advises that an “equivocator” like Macbeth can commit “treason” for a time, but he won’t be able to “equivocate to heaven.” Whatever influences are swaying Shakespeare’s Macbeth, he has determined his own fate. Coen keeps the Porter but excises this pithy condemnation.

In telling the Macbeths’ story, Coen’s film largely bypasses elements that are essential to Shakespeare’s play: the twin arcs of Macbeth’s gradual descent into moral depravity and Lady Macbeth’s growing inability to live with the dark deeds she once brazenly promoted to her husband. But Coen, by his own admission caught up in the play as a “thriller,” distills from it a profoundly moral chronicle. He trims away any substance extraneous to Macbeth’s tenuous grip on power and homes in on that power slipping from Macbeth’s clutches. Macbeth is by far Shakespeare’s most compact tragedy. King Lear sprawls and seizes the gut. Hamlet continually replicates itself and teases the mind. Macbeth’s tragic story is, by contrast, a flash of lightning. Although it takes place over an unspecified but ample amount of time, its narrative is foreshortened, as if it occurs within a few days, thus enabling Coen to represent Macbeth’s rise and fall as a cautionary tale relevant to current culture. This tragic hero, driven and undone by insatiate greed and hunger for power, must have allure for the co-creator of Fargo.

* * *

The visual opening of the Coen brothers’ 1996 film Fargo is noticeably similar to that of Joel Coen’s Macbeth. As an unidentified driver hauls a car on a trailer down a snow-covered stretch of flat highway, a gray sky ahead and above overtakes the scene. A single bird, foreshadowing the crows circling in the air at the start of Macbeth, flits across the expanse overhead, as if searching for a purpose or direction. The chiaroscuro suggests filming in black and white, although Fargo, as will soon be clear, is shot in color. In both cases, the overwhelming sensation is that of desolation. From the perspective of the threatening gray sky, human beings, whatever their impressions of their dominance over nature, are feeble.

No one is feebler than the two small-time criminals whom Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) hires to kidnap his wife, Jean, so that he can extract money from his wealthy father-in-law, money that he needs to bail himself out of debt. Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud are the oil and water of culprit pairings, the former an extrovert whose non-stop talking irritates the self-centered, sociopathic latter. Gaear has no compunction about shooting a highway patrolman and two witnesses to death or about the string of subsequent murders to follow. Carl, although at first psychologically unprepared for the violence Gaear will suddenly introduce in their scheme, learns in almost no time to shoot to kill. The bloody trail these two leave behind is bound to incriminate them.

For their part, Jerry and his father-in-law, Wade, exemplify the Coens’ notion of blood simple. “Jerry’s a fascinating mix of the completely ingenuous and the utterly deceitful,” Ethan Coen has said. “Yet he’s also guileless; even though he set these horrible events in motion, he’s surprised when they go wrong.” To profit from Jean’s kidnapping as he plans, Jerry needs far more mastery over a host of factors than even a skilled scammer would likely bring into play. Talking in circles to those who detect his lies at his car dealership, he manages to evade no one, and he’s blind to how his chronic deception will eventually turn back in upon himself. Powerless to prevent his arrogant, narcissistic father-in-law from usurping the ransom drop-off from him, he clears the way for Wade to get himself killed when, ironically, Wade tries to bluster his way past Carl by brandishing a gun, only to invite Carl to shoot him first.

These characters are, like Macbeth, “in blood / Stepp’d in so far” that they hardly need help with getting caught, punished, or killed. But just when they convey an utterly bleak portrait of human depravity, enter Marge Gunderson, the chief of Brainerd police, to conduct an orderly investigation focused on the Cutlass Ciera that Carl and Gaear are known to be driving. Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning performance as Marge walks a line between respect and mockery. With her thick Minnesota accent and an endearing “geez” that is recognizable out of context even today, she is as laughably goofy as Carl, Gaear, Jerry, and Wade are laughably inept and darkly comic. Seven months pregnant, she trudges through the snow to investigate the crime scenes, making observations both ridiculous—such as that the murdered highway patrolman, whose corpse is now frozen on the road, looks like a nice person—and necessary to solving the crimes. Her patience and determination guide her toward solving the mystery; her decision to act on a lead and take a drive around Moose Lake results in her spotting the Ciera. Her sense of duty empowers her to confront Gaear—as he nonchalantly feeds Carl’s disarticulated limbs into a woodchipper—subdue him, and take him into custody. Her cool head and simple reasoning prevail.

What’s more, her virtue, too good to be true, is somehow believable, charming. In bed with her husband, Norm, she cheers him on as he competes to have his painting of a mallard chosen as an image on a postage stamp. When she’s awakened in the early morning by the call about the murders on the highway, Norm refuses to let her leave until he’s fixed her some eggs. (The characters surrounding and including Marge are motivated by and identified with heaping mounds of food.) Marge, her marriage, and her committed officers are limned in decency. If it sometimes seems corny, it’s also crucial to maintaining social order.

“There’s more to life than a little money, you know,” moralizes Marge to Gaear, now riding in the back of her “prowler.” “I just don’t understand,” she says, in reference to what would motivate anyone to commit the violence that Gaear and Carl have enacted. In defiance of those who would view her simple wisdom as simplistic, Marge emerges a hero. As for those who would laugh along with Carl at the image of Jean—terrified, hands tied behind her back, hoodwinked, running crazedly in the snow in pajamas and bare feet—the final joke is on them.

While the bloodshed in Fargo aligns with that in Macbeth, the difficulty in sympathizing with the majority of the movie’s characters calls to mind King Lear. The insincerity of Lear’s two daughters, Goneril and Regan, seeps out of their overstated protests about how much they love their father, looking forward to their unspeakable cruelty to him, to Gloucester, and to one another by the play’s end. Cordelia, although wronged by being exiled, inexplicably holds back when expressing her love for Lear, then treats her sisters with cold contempt as she departs for France. “I know you what you are,” she says to them with passive-aggressive spite, “And like a sister am most loath to call / Your faults as they are named”—a comment as judgmental as just naming those faults. Lear himself is senile, requiring compassion, yet also infantile. As Regan describes his outburst in the first scene, “’Tis the infirmity of his age, yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.”

Virtuous characters in the Gloucester plot are also hard to come by. Edmund announces at the opening of the second scene the havoc he’s intent on wreaking immediately. Although his claims to being treated unfairly as Gloucester’s bastard son may seem a flimsy excuse for betraying his father and securing his brother’s exile, Gloucester in fact opens the play with a hurtful public reference to Edmund’s bastardy. Professing that he loves Edmund as much as he does his legitimate son, Edgar, he adds about Edmund, “Though this knave came something saucily to the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair, there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledg’d”—quite a mixed message. In the play’s final scene, Edgar holds Gloucester’s adultery responsible for his blinding: “The dark and vicious place” where he conceived the bastard Edmund “Cost him his eyes.”

Edgar himself promises the heroism that might reconstruct a realm whose disintegration is all but complete by the play’s end, but, unlike Marge Gunderson, he doesn’t fully mature until the better part of the destruction has occurred. When, in the play’s final lines, the Duke of Albany designates the Earl of Kent and Edgar as the new leaders of a broken Britain, Kent declines, citing his imminent death, and Edgar neither accepts nor rejects the rule. This darkest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, in which every character is subjected to agonizing loss and heartache—and in which many characters cause human suffering—entertains like no other a dim view of human nature and its prospects and a nihilistic outlook on the universe.

Part and parcel of that tragic vision is the human proclivity for error that, although small, causes vast damage. No more devastating example of human oversight occurs in any of the tragedies than the one that leads to Cordelia’s death in King Lear. Finally prepared to champion Britain in the play’s last act, Edgar defeats Edmund, and, exchanging forgiveness with him, prompts him to perform an act of goodness for once in his life. Earlier, Edmund has ordered the deaths of King Lear and Cordelia, whom his army has captured and imprisoned. Now, apparently chastened by Edgar’s triumph, he declares, “Some good I mean to do, / Despite of mine own nature.” He intends to reverse the order for Lear’s and Cordelia’s deaths. But in the hurly burly of the final scene, in which Goneril and Regan die, Edmund is wounded, and Gloucester is reported to have passed, the fates of the king and his daughter have simply slipped the well-meaning characters’ minds. “Great thing of us forgot!” bemoans Albany upon realizing that no one is paying attention to what matters most. Forgot? Moments later, Lear enters with the dead Cordelia in his arms, the victim of having been overlooked until the possibility of saving her has passed.

If Fargo finally contains its malignant characters, sequestering them from the good-heartedness of those like the Gundersons, it nonetheless flirts with the nihilism that hovers over human weaknesses like forgetfulness. The callous bloodshed in the Coens’ film is initiated when Carl is stopped by the highway patrolman whom Gaear shoots, along with two drive-by witnesses who see Carl trying to move the officers’ blood-soaked body off the road. The patrolman stopped the Ciera in the first place because it was missing its temporary tags. Putting them on, says Carl to the patrolman, “slipped my mind.” Such frailty, which inevitably triggers a ruinous hairpin event, results in catastrophe—punishment for arrogance like Wade’s, leaving behind an orphaned son like Jerry’s, or forfeiting almost a million dollars left in the snow on the roadside. As Carl says to Jerry over the phone, “Circumstances have changed.”