“Fargo” Teaches Me to Understand Sympathy

I watched “Fargo” tonight while I stirred a mushroom-salmon risotto (I’ve been on a movie kick lately, can you tell? I’m taking advantage of a free month of Netflix) and I discovered  simple way to express something I’ve always known about myself but haven’t had the right words for until recently. And I imagine a lot of people feel this way and knew this all along, so I thought I’d write pointlessly about it. Small spoiler alerts if you’re one of the fools (or people who don’t like dark comedy) who hasn’t seen it.

The thing is, I feel sympathy towards just about anyone whose motivations I can understand (there, see, I told you I should have known how to say this long ago). I discovered this when Francis McDormand tells Peter Stormare’s character (the silent, smoking bad guy) that she “just can’t understand” why he would wind up killing someone, just for the money, on a beautiful fall day. As soon as she said it, I realized that Stormare’s character is indeed the only one in the movie that I don’t wish good things upon. When it comes to everyone else, I want good things to happen to them no matter what they’ve done (note that this doesn’t mean I want them to get whatever they happen to want for themselves; I just want them to find happiness).

Fargo is the perfect example of this, because it’s actually impossible for everyone (besides the unrelatable Stormare) to all succeed simultaneously. And yet I do, because I understand where they’re coming from and why they’re behaving the way they are. I want William H. Macy to get the money he needs, because I can totally understand how hard it can be to need help and not feel like you can ask for it. I want McDormand to catch him and all the other criminals, because I understand that she is a good, talented cop who could probably be swimming with bigger fish, and so I want her to be able to stretch her detective muscles. I want Macy’s father to show the criminals who’s boss, because I can relate to the way he’s proud of what he’s built for his family and doesn’t want to entrust it to a bumbling rube. And I want Steve Buscemi to get away from the cops and retrieve the millions of dollars he buried, because I understand that he’s just a criminal because he doesn’t seem to have a lot of other options and I suspect that if he had the money he’d quite the life of crime and just go relax on a beach somewhere.

All of these people are human enough that I can put myself in their shoes, at least a tiny bit. But for me it seems to be an all-or-nothing equation. If even for a moment I can see things through their eyes, if I can see myself making at least one of the decisions they made if put into their situation, I’m automatically against letting anything bad happen to them. This is part of why I can’t watch Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking. I know he’s actually guilty (oops, spoiler alert on that too) but I buy the sincerity with which he fears his execution. Even though he’s clearly a horrible guy.

No, the only people I’m ever willing to root against in a movie are people who manage to come across as so alien that I can’t conceive of why or how they make any of their decisions. People like Jarvier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men” or Stormare in “Fargo.” Anyone else is almost certain to get my support at some point, as long as I thing you’re an actual human being and not a stock “evildoer” (or, as in the aforementioned examples, an expertly acted portrayal of a man crazed beyond the fringe of human emotion).

Maybe it’s the translation of this sympathy into real life that makes me a “bleeding heart libreal” who does silly things like oppose the death penalty under all circumstances and support amnesty for illegal immigrants. I don’t know. But on the other hand, it’s certainly has helped me out in my life on a smaller scale, because after all, it makes it next to impossible to hold grudges and smoothes out a lot of potential arguments before they happen. But then again, it also makes it hard to truly take pleasure in watching my guy win a sports game (I always hate Nadal up until the moment he loses match point, and then I remember he’s the second nicest guy in tennis).

I don’t know what to make of it. But I can’t really change it, so I guess the only thing that matters is to understand and recognize it. And that will be much easier now that I can think of it as “the Fargo effect.”

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About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

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