Near the end of Joel and Ethan Coen's Fargo, Carl Showalter – the hapless, "kinda funny-lookin" criminal played by Steve Buscemi – buries a briefcase loaded with nearly $1-million in the deep snow out by a fence beside a two-lane highway.
He looks up and down the road nervously, nursing a gunshot wound in his cheek. The winter landscape seems to stretch out forever, a consuming, indistinguishable white space. Stuck for a better idea (Fargo is full of bad ideas), he marks the loot's location with a dinky red ice scraper. The joke, and maybe it's a mean one, is that he'll never be able to find the money again.
In Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter – a new film by another set of brothers, David and Nathan Zellner – locating this briefcase full of cash becomes a kind of storybook quest. The Zellners' hero is Kumiko (played by Rinko Kikuchi), a reclusive Japanese secretary whose only pleasure is spitting in her boss's tea. In her free time, Kumiko obsessively watches Fargo, convinced that she can track down the location of Buscemi's fictional plunder.
Maybe she's hoodwinked by Fargo's cheeky disclaimer (the Coens famously prefaced the film with a title card claiming it was a true story, even though it wasn't). Maybe her social isolation has left her detached from reality. Probably a bit of both. Either way, Kumiko's possessed and she heads halfway around the world in pursuit of what she believes are "untold riches hidden deep in the Americas." She regards herself as a modern conquistador. The frostbitten American Midwest – with its chintzy buffets, high-pile fur coats and sing-songy "Oh yeahs" and "You betchas" – is her El Dorado. And the Coen brothers' Fargo is a holy writ guiding her toward her destiny.
Fargo's storybook-like sway also drapes the spinoff cable series, which begins its second season on FX this fall. In its first season, TV's Fargo offered another "true story," about a beleaguered insurance salesman (Martin Freeman) who murders his wife and gets mixed up with a psychotic and calculating hit man (Billy Bob Thornton). In the show's fourth episode, it's revealed that a cash-strapped family man (Oliver Platt) has already found the buried money from Fargo and, taking it as a sign from God, uses it to build a modest supermarket empire.
Both FX's Fargo and the Zellners' Kumiko feel as if they're obvious attempts to piggyback on nostalgia for the Coens' film. Rightfully considered one of the best American movies of its decade, Fargo dovetailed two compelling strains of mid-1990s pop culture: the cynicism and self-interest of voguish neo-noir movies such as Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects, and the deeply ironized small-town quirk of Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure on TV. The pitiable greediness of Fargo's luckless Average Joe crooks was tempered with the homespun geniality of Frances McDormand's police chief Marge Gunderson, waddling through the snow bearing the weight of an unborn baby. Fargo was the ultimate "it can't happen here" crime story of its era.
It's something the TV series is unable to replicate, despite copping plenty of Coenesque elements, from Freeman's hard-pressed hubby to Allison Tolman's pregnant police deputy to Thornton's mushroom-cut embodiment of undiluted evil (essentially the Peter Stormare character from Fargo by way of Javier Bardem's dead-eyed psycho in No Country for Old Men). FX's Fargo turns the Coens' original into everything its detractors accuse it of: condescension, folksy mockery, a certain "derisive amusement," as critic Jonathan Rosenbaum put it. And that "it can't happen here" quality of the original feels diluted in a TV series that casts the Minnesota/North Dakota borderlands as the murder capital of America.
The hopelessly earnest, entirely uncynical Kumiko restores something of Fargo's mythic splendour. En route from Tokyo to buried fortune, Kumiko comes across her own cast of oddball Midwestern locals. There's a pair of hucksters selling old-time religion; a kindly widow who gifts Kumiko a paperback copy of Shogun ("It's about Japan!"); a deaf cab driver with a grinning grill of nicotine-yellowed teeth; and a sympathetic policeman (director David Zellner) who patiently tries to explain to Kumiko that her journey is misguided.
"It's not real like a documentary or news," he tells her, explaining that Fargo is only fiction. "It's just a normal movie. Fake. Like a story."
What Fargo's promotion from madcap neo-noir to modern urban legend suggests is that, sometimes, our stories are something other than fake, something more than just stories. It's this singular, mythic quality that FX's Fargo forgets; it's too wrapped up in gawking parochial caricature. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, as the film turns from light comedy to tragedy, hints at something darker: that these movie-made myths can have a corrupting and destructive influence, especially on someone too naive to pick up on subtler inflections of irony and cynicism.
Poor Kumiko is so overcome by her desire to recover Fargo's hidden treasure that she forgets the sage wisdom of Marge Gunderson: "There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don't you know that? And here you are, and it's a beautiful day."