Dir. Joel Coen
Written by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare
It’s been a while since I’ve written about a Coen Brothers movie for this project, and getting to another one feels a bit like finding an oasis in the middle of a desert. Certainly not because the quality of the films that I’ve been watching and writing about since I wrote about The Big Lebowski has been lacking, but because there is something comforting to me about immersing myself in the offbeat world in which these sibling auteurs choose to set their films. From an early age, I can remember the movies of the Coen Brothers being a background figure in my upbringing. Both of my parents had loved Raising Arizona and would regularly reference and quote the movie when I was young, though I don’t remember actually watching that movie until I was a little older. Instead, like many, Fargo was my introduction to the Coen Brothers. My parents rented the video when I was about 11, and I was allowed to stay up and watch the movie with them on a weekend night. I thought the Midwestern accents in the movie were hysterical, and even though I didn’t really understand it at the time, I sensed a darkness and a weirdness that existed on the fringes. Over the years, the movie would become an absolute favorite, and I would return to it time and time again. Fargo is still a favorite, and I think the older I get, the more I appreciate the film’s tale of small-time grift and murder born out of desperation, and its black sense of humor.
Fargo begins with Jerry Lundegaard (Macy), a sales manager at an Oldsmobile dealership who has gotten in over his head in a bad financing scheme, meeting with Gaer Grimsrud (Stormare) and Carl Showalter (Buscemi) at a bar in Fargo, North Dakota. Jerry has hatched a plan to hire Gaer and Carl to kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrud), and then extort a ransom out of his wealthy father-in-law, Wade (Harve Presnell). He plans to tell Wade that the ransom is $1,000,000, of which he will pay Carl and Gaer $80,000 and keep the rest to cover his debts and give him seed money for a new investment. Though Jerry begins to have second thoughts, the kidnapping takes place, and while the kidnappers are transporting Jean to their hideout to await the ransom, they are stopped by a state trooper. Gaer kills the state trooper, and later kills two witnesses who see him and Carl trying to hide the trooper’s body. The sloppy triple homicide obviously alerts the attention of the local police department, and Chief Margie Gunderson (McDormand) of Brainerd, Minnesota, takes the case. Margie’s initial investigation leads her to the discovery that the murdered trooper was ticketing a car with dealer plates, which eventually leads her investigation all the way to Jerry’s dealership in Minneapolis. What was supposed to be a simple staged kidnapping has spawned multiple homicides, and Jerry and Carl struggle to keep the lid on their scheme while Margie comes closer and closer to uncovering the truth and the connection between Jean’s kidnapping and the subsequent murders.
As I mentioned, Fargo is a movie that I grew up with, and in many ways, grew into. I think that it’s a perfect movie to introduce someone to the Coen Brothers, especially if they’re young. There are a couple of brief sex scenes, and a few instances of pretty graphic violence, but depending on a kid’s maturity level, there shouldn’t be anything too objectionable in Fargo, and even though it’s a darkly themed film, its sinister core is coated in a quirky, quaint veneer. When I was young, the overstated Midwestern accents and mannerisms of the characters were all I really picked up on in the film, but they stuck with me, making me want to rewatch the movie where they talked about the Golden Gophers and said, “Oh, you betcha!” There was something about the specificity of the movie that spoke to me, and, as I’ve written previously, the Coens are masters at nailing the specific feeling of a time or a place. Each of their films, though often set in wildly disparate universes, feels genuinely rooted in this sense of time and place, and Fargo is no exception. From the film’s outset, with its opening shots of Jerry Lundegaard driving across the snow-swept tundra of North Dakota in a stolen car to meet up with the men he will hire to kidnap his wife, there is no mistaking the setting for anywhere but the upper Midwest. When I was young, I latched onto this aesthetic. I know I didn’t see it more than once or twice on television in the intervening years between first seeing it when it was new and purchasing the movie on DVD several years later as a teenager, but I can distinctly remember being enamored with the hermetically sealed, snow globe world of Fargo.
When I got older, I went back to Fargo and I was surprised at the depth of the movie that I mostly remembered for its cartoonish depictions of Minnesota niceties and the coldness of its mise-en-scene. I found that the coldness of its setting was reflective of the cold brutality with which the characters treat one another in the movie. I had understood the movie’s plot when I was younger, of course, but I don’t think that I had quite picked up on the callousness behind much of it. When I initially watched the film, I think I viewed Jean’s kidnapping as a farcical flawed caper, rather than the horrifying act of desperation that it really is. Being young, I didn’t really understand the deep, adult nature of Jerry’s selfish desperation, or his willingness to sacrifice everything in a misguided effort to rectify his earlier financial blunders. William H. Macy would make his name playing these types of characters, down on their luck losers who emit a palpable air of sadness and shame, but Jerry Lundegaard still stands out as one of his best performances. Macy’s hangdog expression and “aw shucks,” line delivery are perfect here, as is the nervous energy that he plays Jerry with. It’s a backhanded compliment to say that Macy might be the best actor in Hollywood at playing a weasel, but he nails that quality of Jerry perfectly. Until he made the fateful decision to hire men to kidnap his wife, Jerry was simply a parasitic, small man, desperate for a little success and recognition, who got in a little over his head and made poor decisions. Unfortunately, as a result of those decisions, bodies start piling up like snow in January.
Another major thing that I never picked up on in Fargo is the film’s moments of immense strangeness. When I returned to the movie in my late teens, I noticed a distinct, almost Lynchian, undertone of surreality throughout the film. This plays out most regularly in the odd, clipped manner of conversation that the Coens employ often. Several times characters engage in brief conversations that seem to begin or end abruptly, or interject phrases that seem oddly out of place. When Margie is interviewing the two call girls who slept with Carl and Gaer, one of the women blurts out her high school and gives a small cheer when Margie asks her where she’s from. It’s a funny line that could easily be chalked up to the film’s specificity and the cultural pride of the Midwest, but it’s also a moment of dark absurdity. The interjection has no place in a murder investigation, and it marks a moment of darkness bubbling up from underneath the tranquil surface of small town Middle American normalcy.
Another moment in the film that has come to strike me as incredibly odd is Margie’s dinner with her former classmate, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park). They meet for lunch in Minneapolis while Margie is in town working her case, and before they’ve even had a chance to eat their meal, Mike breaks down, confessing that he’s always loved Margie and that his wife has recently died of leukemia. Only later does she find out that Mike’s wife was not dead, and in fact was never his wife, instead Mike had stalked their former classmate. Margie reflects on this information, as she had clearly pitied Mike during his breakdown, and the audience is also forced to view Mike’s previous pathetic desperation as a sinister attempt at manipulation. The interactions have always struck me as affected, and the nature of the revelation of Mike’s stalking and lying has always felt a bit out of place in the film. The scene is largely tangential to the rest of the plot, but it serves to reinforce the premise that there is a sinister sort of perversity underlying some of the character’s seemingly upstanding nature. I suppose that I connect these moments of ancillary strangeness with Lynch because I think that he explores very similar themes in Blue Velvet. Just like he explores the darkness underlying small town America in that film, in Fargo, the Coens explore the neuroses and sinister urges that can propel even the most normal seeming people.
Of course, there is one character in the film who seems to be truly guided by noble principles, and that is Chief Margie Gusterson. Frances McDormand won an Academy Award for her performance as the pregnant police chief, and I think that this role still stands out as her signature role among a deep body of work. I’ve written before that McDormand is one of my favorite working actors, and my affinity for her work began with seeing Fargo for the first time. McDormand is the source of much of the film’s humor, playing Margie with a natural sense of bemusement that helps the audience identify with her as a character. However she also gets to be strong and tough, giving Margie an innate knack for police work and investigation, while the other cops in the movie are shown to be bumbling and inadequate. More than anything, though, McDormand imbues Margie with a sense of goodness that shines through in spite of the ugly circumstances that the character finds herself in. This basic decency and goodness makes Margie a great foil for the sleazy and selfish characters, such as Carl and Jerry, who people Fargo. Her performance is the light at the end of a tunnel, a reassurance of the basic decency that drives most people.
The rest of the film’s performances are top notch, as well. The film’s characters are often paired against one another, and the casting is spot on. Harve Presnell is an apt foil for Macy’s Jerry. Where Jerry is timid and soft-spoken, Wade is bold and bellicose, and successful, to boot. Presnell is a perfect angry old man, and he delivers some great, memorable lines when he’s criticizing Jean and Jerry’s parenting. Buscemi and Stormare form a perfect pair, with Buscemi’s garrulous, frenzied acting style providing a complement for Stormare’s laconic, stoic delivery. The Coens also perfectly pit these characters against one another, utilizing Stormare’s physicality to turn Gaer into a classicly hulking villain, while Carl’s impatience and irritability come out in Buscemi’s characteristic verbal patter and his jittery screen presence. Both actors get their moments of comedy as well, with Stormare employing expert timing and a wry sense of humor to deliver blasé punch lines, while Buscemi adopts a more physical, frenzied comedy that plays like a very dark slapstick. John Lynch turns in an understated supporting performance as Norm, Margie’s devoted, loving husband. He and McDormand share several moments of genuine tenderness, and their relationship, and glowing anticipation of their unborn child, give the film its emotional heart. The two actors share an easy chemistry, helping to ground the otherwise chaotic, spiraling narrative of the film. It’s fitting that the film ends on a bedroom conversation between Norm and Margie, as it feels like their love is the good thing that is worth saving from the avaricious ambitions of Jerry, Carl, and Gaer.
I’m sure it’s obvious that I’m a huge fan of Fargo. It’s been one of the most consistent movies in my life, and I still return to it every couple of years, or so. One of the things that I’ve learned from working on this project is that any attempt to rank or order favorite movies, particularly within the body of work of my favorite filmmakers, isn’t really an exercise that I’m interested in. I’ve hung onto these movies, for the most part, because on any given day they could find themselves mentioned among my favorites of all time. Some, like Fargo, would find themselves in that discussion with more credence and more regularity than others. It’s accepted as a masterpiece, and I think many people would rank it as the Coen Brothers’ best film, which I wouldn’t have much quibble with. The movie’s reputation as a classic is well-earned, given the strength of its performances, its perfect balance of humor and suspenseful intrigue, and its iconic and memorable visual imagery. I know that many of the movies that I champion on this site are often somewhat esoteric, but Fargo is honestly a movie with something for everyone. It can be appreciated on many different levels, and it satisfies so many different things that I would want out of a go-to comfort movie. I can put it on in the background when I’m doing chores around the house, or I can sit down and watch it intently, appreciating its perfectly crafted script, and Roger Deakins’s coldly beautiful cinematography. It’s a movie that even though I’ve seen it over a dozen times, I never tire of going back for a repeat viewing. Chances are if you can’t find something to love about Fargo, you don’t really like movies at all.