FARGO (1996)

  • Director: Joel Coen
  • Writers: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
  • Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare, Kristin Rudrüd, Tony Denman, Steve Reevis, Larry Brandenburg, John Carroll Lynch, and Steve Park
  • Accolades: 1998 AFI Top 100 list (#84), shown at 1996 Cannes Film Festival, 2 Oscars (Best Actress – Frances McDormand, Best Original Screenplay), 5 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Joel Coen, Best Supporting Actor – William H. Macy, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing), 6 Independent Spirit Awards (Best Film, Best Director – Joel Coen, Best Male Lead – William H. Macy, Best Female Lead – Frances McDormand, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Hoopla (library app), free streaming (with ads) on Pluto TV, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

In my opinion, Fargo’s status as one of the great film achievements of its particular era is well deserved. It is exciting, suspenseful, and very funny, and I would recommend it to basically anyone. Yeah, there’s an (in)famous scene in which a criminal attempts unsuccessfully to feed a dead body through a wood-chipper, but it is more gory in a Halloween decoration kind of way than in a horror movie sort of way, if that makes any sense. The general tone of the movie in this regard can perhaps best be illustrated by the fact that the “Special Edition VHS” release of the movie included a snow globe that, when shaken, dispersed both snow and “blood.” It is a modern film noir under a unique patina of “Minnesota nice” and heavy Upper Midwestern accents, where all of the characters have Scandinavian-derived last names. That the movie’s familiarity with daily life in small, snow-bound Minnesotan and North Dakotan small towns is so dead-on is a result of the fact that the Coen Brothers are from Minnesota themselves.

Fargo’s most famous and memorable character is likely Marge Gunderson (the great Frances McDormand, who deservedly won her first Oscar for her performance), the pregnant and friendly, but very sharp, police chief of Brainerd, Minnesota (“the home of Paul Bunyan”). It is when Marge and her supportive husband (John Carroll Lynch), worried about his duck painting for an annual stamp competition, enter the movie that it really starts to come together. With a less well-drawn character and performance at the center, Fargo would be an interesting but in the end forgettable crime story. As it is, it seems to something deep and important at its center, if we could only figure out what it is. The plot is convoluted, and while I usually don’t care about spoilers on this site I’ll leave them out for this one, which is less about twists and turns and more about complications piling up on its criminals with an inexorable weight. The movie opens with a title card that claims that it is based on a true story, but this in itself is a fiction. Many years later, Joel Coen admitted that “the only thing true about the story is that it’s a story.”

William H. Macy gives perhaps his best performance as Jerry Lundegaard, the beaten-down Minneapolis car salesman whose desperation lies at the center of the movie’s problems. He is very, very bad at crime, but cursed with an awareness of just how bad he is, leading to an increasing sense that everything is spiraling out of control. He needs money badly, either to buy some parking lots and make himself some money of his own, or for other, darker and less clear reasons. He can’t quite get his self-made millionaire Father-in-Law (Harve Presnell) to lend him the money. Jerry devises a scheme (to call it a scheme may be overly generous) in which criminals will pretend to kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrüd) in exchange for a ransom from the father-in-law.

Jerry is the sort of criminal who, when he decides at one point to call off the kidnapping, is unable to do so because he can’t find the phone number of the criminals he’s hired. He finds the kidnappers third hand, through a guy he knows who works in a machine shop. They are a mismatched duo played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare. Buscemi’s character is one of the few characters in the movie completely out of his element in Minnesota, and makes his own share of bad choices, while Stormare barely talks but occasionally shoots people, much to Buscemi’s surprise (“Oh daddy!” he yells in horror during one murder). None of these people, or their various associates, are any match for Marge, who is called to a triple murder scene on the highway outside her town and immediately figures out exactly what happened. She is only interrupted by a sudden bout of morning sickness. “You find something der, Marge?” “No, I just think I’m gonna barf.”

Marge’s dialogue is punctuated by overuse of “ya” (as in “yes”) and a refusal to really bad mouth anyone. Her mostly dumb deputy (Bruce Boehne) does not realize that “DLR” denotes dealer plates, leading to her comment, “I’m not sure I agree with ya 100% on yer police work der, Lou.” Coming from Marge, this is an excoriation. This scene, and many others, play out against the visually striking backdrop of a blanket of snow and ice. In one scene, Jerry returns to his car to find its windshield caked with ice. After his initial attempts to scrape it off are unsuccessful, he loses his cool, wildly beating the car with his ice scraper. Then he resignedly returns to scraping off the ice.

Fargo surprisingly made it onto the AFI list of the Top 100 American films only two years after it came out, and maybe even more surprisingly dropped off the updated list ten years later. It definitely should be on there. It also turned out to be a bit too off-center to win Best Picture in 1996, losing out in many of its nominated categories to The English Patient. I know that movie has an increasing number of supporters these days, but there is no way we would come to that result today. The subsequent Best Picture victory of No Country for Old Men, which, at least on its surface, is a Coen Brothers movie with many similarities to Fargo, was seen by many even at the time as a sort of make-up award. Fargo’s brand remains strong enough today that a television series with the same name (but bearing little relationship to the movie) is on its fourth season (it is one of those series with a different story and cast every year).

So this is going somewhere, I promise. I’ve recently been enjoying a TV series, originally from New Zealand, called Wellington Paranormal, the central conceit of which is that it’s basically a parody of COPS where the central officers keep running into ghosts and werewolves and stuff, which they constantly treat in the same offhand manner they would use when dealing with routine drug offenses or something. I was trying to put into words why Fargo is exactly my thing, and yes it’s a great movie, but I think it’s also because of the very matter-of-fact way that Marge and many of her fellow denizens of the Upper Midwest react to the increasingly bizarre events unfolding. One of the movie’s running jokes is that nobody can give any coherent description of Steve Buscemi’s character, repeatedly describing him as “a weird-looking guy.” “Weird how?” “I dunno, weird.” The world is banal and scary at the same time. Few movies really capture that, but Fargo does.

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