With Fargo “The Coens have never achieved such balance in their work before, have never been able to so coherently harness and contain their diverse artistic impulses to the service of one story. By returning to their roots, however strange they are, the Coens have made their best film to date.” Premiere’s praise for Fargo mirrored the universal acclaim for the Coen brothers’ sixth film as writers and directors. And with a cast of characters so off-the-wall even David Lynch would find them weird, Fargo represents the idiosyncratic filmmakers at their prodigious best.
Although a caption at the beginning of the film claims that Fargo is based on a true story, this has subsequently proved to be one of the Coens’ little in-jokes. The film “aims to be homey and exotic, and pretends to be true,” Ethan wrote in the introduction to the published screenplay.
In fact, it’s a quintessential work of fiction from the twisted yet inspired minds of Joel and Ethan, two Minnesota boys who draw on their background to paint this picture of an oddball Midwestern US town. “Fargo is a direct result of where they grew up,” explains Frances McDormand, who plays the film’s hero – heavily pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson.
“It’s an affectionate, sometimes hyper-realistic, often humorously dark comment on everything they experienced growing up there – from the harsh winters to the Scandinavian influence of the region to the quiet yet festering normalcy that, in this case, leads to violence. They’ve painted a beautifully bland, white [snowy] landscape with a thin grey horizon splattered with human blood. That’s Joel and Ethan’s Minnesota.”
Jerry Lundegaard (William H Macy) is a weak-willed car salesman. To solve his cripplingly heavy debt, he arranges for a couple of criminals, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), to kidnap his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd), thus enabling him to collect a ransom from his wealthy father-in-law. But the plan backfires when, after snatching Jean, the two kidnappers kill a policeman and two passing tourists.
When the bodies are found, police officer Marge Gunderson hunts for the killers. Things become even more complicated when the father-in-law, Wade (Harve Presnall), decides to take the ransom money to the kidnappers personally and is killed following a fight with Carl. Although Jerry is trying to cover his tracks, the intuitive Marge is already on his trail. Whether she can solve the murders before more blood is spilt is another matter.
The film was the worthy winner of 1997’s Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, with William H Macy calling it “a perfect example of the dictionary definition of grotesque: it’s at once beautiful and hideous at the same time.” It was definitely the first screenplay to be honoured for containing such choice Minnesotan phrases such as “Okey dokey” and “Yah.”
Tom Shone in the Sunday Times commented that “Fargo is a wry reminder that crime, far from being the occasion for a battle of wits or meeting of minds, tends, on the whole, to be committed by idiots, and solved by nerds. It took the Coens to put it to work in such a delicious comedy of criminal error. The Coens have made a world first. They’ve made America’s first Ealing comedy.” Sight and Sound noted that, “as with Blood Simple, the Coens prove themselves masters of orchestrating cross-purposes plots, with half-thought-out criminal schemes going awry in ways that are surprising and yet obvious, ironic and yet horrifying.”
2014 saw the arrival of an equally quirky TV series that told a different story entirely but had the same vibe. Each successive season of the show has a new cast and is set in a different time period.
USA / 1995
Director: Joel Coen
Writers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, William H Macy, Harve Presnell, Kristin Rudrüd