5 out of 5 stars

Fairly late in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, long after things have gone irremediably bad for most of the major characters, good Minnesota citizen Mr Mohra (Bain Boehlke) calls the police to report a suspicious incident involving a “kinda funny-lookin’” man. Officer Olson (Cliff Rakerd) turns up and takes a statement from Mohra, dutifully recording the funny-lookin’ man’s odd comments at Mohra’s bar; cop and suburbanite then exchange pleasantries and discuss the weather. Throughout the conversation you can hardly see either of them, so buttoned up are they against the winter cold, and it’s this kind of absurdity so intimately interwoven with the procedural elements of a police thriller that gives Fargo its particular and enthralling character.

The funny-lookin’ man in question is small-time incompetent crook Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi), his indefinably odd appearance a running joke through the movie—not only in dialogue, but also the way he gets steadily more ugly after an encounter with a bullet and the unhelpful application of farcically makeshift bandages.

Showalter’s one of the first characters introduced in Fargo, along with his partner in crime Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), and the superficially more law-abiding Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy). Lundegaard arrives late for a meeting with Showalter and Grimsrud; the trio’s disagreement over the scheduled time doesn’t bode well for their efficiency in executing criminal plots, but nevertheless they agree to go ahead with a plan in which Grimsrud and Showalter will kidnap Lundegaard’s wife, Lundegaard will obtain the ransom money from his father-in-law, and the three men will split the proceeds.

It sounds like a perfect crime (even if Lundegaard’s already secretly intending to cheat his two collaborators out of their fair share), but inevitably it all goes horribly, and rapidly, wrong. Soon there are three dead bodies in the Minnesotan snow and small-town police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) turns up to investigate.

The remainder of Fargo follows her progress with the case, Grimsrud and Showalter’s increasingly ill-tempered antics, and Lundegaard’s attempts to extricate the ransom money from his wife’s father Wade (Harve Presnell, returning to the big-screen after almost three decade’s absence), while also keeping control of his own collapsing financial situation. It’s clear he’s been committing fraud at the car dealership where he works and which Wade owns, but isn’t terribly good at it.

Not far from the crime scene, meanwhile, a huge statue of the mythical lumberjack Paul Bunyan looms in the cold darkness, one of several elements lending a somewhat David Lynchian air to proceedings; his giant axe perhaps suggesting that, for all the folksy friendliness of this Midwestern community, there is always violence lurking beneath.

“A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere”, the publicity for Fargo said, and that apparent contradiction sums the film up well. Everything in it seems somehow small (even a triple-murder case is handled in a manner that makes it feel minor) and yet it’s unbounded by limitations, as if events could go in any wild direction at any time. One shot, of Showalter gazing up and down an apparently infinite stretch of fencing in the open countryside, encapsulates this beautifully.

Much of this is down to the screenplay by both Coens, which is short on big speeches but has every word impeccably judged. A great deal also is down to the casting and performances, many of them from Coen Brothers regulars, and so consistently spot-on it’s impossible to single out anyone shining more than the others.

McDormand’s Marge, the police chief, is perhaps the most intriguing of all, and also one of relatively few likeable major characters in the film. She’s low-key, friendly, and far advanced in pregnancy, so about as far from glamorous and hard-boiled as it’s possible to be, and yet Fargo steadily reveals her to be a very effective detective, something that may come as a surprise to viewers expecting a sleuth as inept as the criminals. For all her down-home ways she’s interestingly open-minded, too, something we learn when she skilfully interviews two prostitutes who spent a night with Grimsrud and Showalter. McDormand’s part, as with Buscemi’s and Stormare’s, was written with the performer in mind.

Throughout Fargo there are commonalities and differences among the characters which lead us to wonder just what it is that makes some people turn out good and others bad. Buscemi’s Showalter, for example, is the polar opposite of McDormand (hyper-nervy, perpetually pained by the irritants of life), but he himself is also contrasted with Stormare’s very different Grimsrud (a quiet man-child and stone-cold killer).

Grimsrud for his part resembles, but is also different from, the equally large and quiet John Carroll Lynch (excellent as always) as Marge’s husband, a gentle painter and house-husband. Their marriage seems genuine and loving, suggesting yet another contrast with the fake domestic contentment of Macy and his wife (Kristin Rudrüd) and the unfriendly companionship of the two hoods.

Macy’s Jerry is, along with Marge, perhaps the stand-out character (even if Buscemi’s Showalter’s the most flamboyant) and the actor captures a certain kind of anxious, falsely cheery, weak man so convincingly. He’s amoral and desperate, but also a kind of victim himself, of the idea that human value lies in financial success. That’s certainly the attitude of his father-in-law Wade, a fierce and even cruel self-made millionaire.

Equally memorable are many of the smaller roles: Gary Houston as an angry customer at Jerry’s car dealership, Steve Park as an old school friend of Marge who meets her for a drink and can’t conceal his lonely sadness, Steve Reevis as the taciturn mechanic Shep who first puts Jerry in touch with Grimsrud and Showalter, Bruce Bohne as the amiable and slightly slow cop Lou, and Michelle Hutchison as a grotesque escort.

It’s the people who stick in our mind from Fargo, most of all, but the film’s visual character is also strong, combining a no-frills true-crime aesthetic with an appreciation for the bleak beauty of the empty Minnesota landscapes. The Coens themselves hail from this part of the United States.

At the beginning, for example, almost abstract blue and white resolves to sky, snow, blizzard, a row of telegraph poles, and a car. Cinematographer Roger Deakins contributes another exceptionally gorgeous shot later on in the murder scene: a painterly night-time combination of white and red car lights, grey snow, and a red coat. Nearly all of Fargo was shot on location using natural light wherever possible—although, ironically, much of the snow is artificial thanks to an unusually mild winter during shooting.

Carter Burwell’s score, meanwhile, also contributes much to Fargo’s unique character. At first it might seem excessively grandiose for the sometimes trivial on-screen action, but this is intentional and underlines the way the Coens skilfully treat universal themes of love, hate, greed, and fear in an unpretentious story.

Fargo didn’t tread entirely new ground for the Coens (as they’d told similar storylines in their first two movies, 1984’s Blood Simple and 1987’s Raising Arizona). But it was the hit they urgently needed after three less than resounding successes—Miller’s Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), and especially The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)—and it even won two major Academy Awards for the Coen’s screenplay and McDormand’s performance. (It was also nominated for ‘Best Picture’, ‘Best Directing’, ‘Best Editing’, ‘Best Supporting Actor’ for Macy, and ‘Best Cinematography’ for Deakins.

Critics loved it too. Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrotethere’s no mistaking the fact that this tale is fundamentally grim. Yet the filmmakers’ absurdist humor and beautifully honed storytelling give it a winning acerbity, a quirky appreciation of the sheer futility captured on screen… for all its exaggerated ordinariness, this film seems to start out where others leave off.” Roger Ebert called it “one of the best films I’ve ever seen… to watch it is to experience steadily mounting delight, as you realise the filmmakers have taken enormous risks, gotten away with them and made a movie that is completely original, and as familiar as an old shoe.”

One major element of its enduring appeal (which spawned a four-season FX TV series many years later), is that it’s such a difficult film to classify. Even the title’s something of a mystery, as little of the movie actually takes place in Fargo, North Dakota. But the word helpfully suggests both the distance of its not-quite-real-seeming locale from the metropolitan coasts where most US movies are set, and the farrago into which the criminal plot will descend.

Fargo has elements of film noir and comedy. It starts out feeling like a true crime drama, perhaps evoking In Cold Blood with its two killers cruising the empty roads (the Coens have been vague about whether it’s based on a real case or not, and contradictory intertitles at the beginning and end do nothing to clear matters up). But then the story switches to being almost a screwball comedy, with jet-black humour but also tenderness, and the ending is quite moralising. It’s carefully constructed and relatively short, but takes the liberty of meandering now and again. “Each incident didn’t necessarily have to be at the service of the plot”, Joel Coen has since said.

The movie is both ironically amused and heartfelt, and despite its body count and the deceptions of many characters, it’s a thoroughly positive film. Critics like Christopher Sharrett who see Fargo as delivering “snide humour” at the expense of unsophisticated Midwesterners have the film the wrong way round. It loves and respects its good guys, but is surprisingly tolerant of its baddies. Both absurdly unrealistic and completely human, Fargo is one of the most perfect mainstream American movies ever made.

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USA | 1996 | 98 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Joel Coen.
writers: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell & Peter Stormare