Fargo Review


It really doesn’t get much better than Fargo. The Coen Brothers’ films are all special in their own way (even if they aren’t entirely successful, like in the case of Barton Fink), but this one is just magical. It’s relatively simple and straightforward for a Coen film, but it touches on the brothers’ favorite themes—consequence and chance—and manages to present us a number of charmingly absurd characters in a perfectly realized time and place. It’s one of my all-time favorites and my choice for the finest film of the 1990s.

The Coens infamously told us back in 1996 that the events in Fargo were based on a true story. We now know this assertion to be false, though that shouldn’t take anything away from the film’s wonderful plot. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is in dire need of cash, so he goes to two third-rate criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) with an idea: They kidnap his wife. He convinces his father-in-law, the wealthy Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell), into forking over the ransom money. And all three split the loot and walk away forever. Sounds good, right? Maybe if Jerry went to someone a little less clueless than these two. They botch the job, leaving three innocent bodies in their wake. Enter Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), police chief in Brainerd, Minnesota. She’s investigating the murders, with no knowledge of Jerry and his troubles. She’s just on the lookout for a tan Ciera Cutlass, and the search will take this small-town woman on a dark journey she won’t likely ever forget.

What’s perhaps most remarkable about Fargo is that its characters, while certainly being “Midwestern values” stereotypes on the surface, are complicated individuals with many layers. Steve Buscemi’s Showalter and Peter Stormare’s Grimsrud are certainly vicious individuals inside and out, but Jerry is different. For all his lies, betrayals, and willingness to put his loved ones’ lives at risk, he’s a harmless individual. In the end, do we empathize with him? Probably not. But there’s something sad about his ineptitude and constant failures at everything.

Then there’s Marge, one of film’s most venerable and beloved heroines. Frances McDormand, being directed once again by her husband, won an Oscar for her portrayal of the Midwest’s most endearing officer of the law. What’s most admirable about Marge is just how vulnerable she is—not just physically (she’s got a serious baby bump going on) but also mentally. Marge faces forces that are her complete antithesis. She doesn’t understand why anyone could do such terrible things, but that doesn’t stop her from going deeper and deeper into this plot, in order to find the truth and those responsible.

Defining Fargo is a complicated task, as it contains elements of so many genres. It’s has elements of mystery (though we know the whole way exactly what’s going on). It’s also darkly comic at times, though it’s unafraid to get quite serious, even going so far as to knock off some truly innocent victims. The plot might seem familiar, but I guarantee you’ve never seen it presented in this way before.

Like all Coen features, Fargo features absolutely impeccable below-the-line credits. The cinematography (from regular Coen contributor Roger Deakins) is pitch-perfect without being as showy as some of their previous (and future) features. The score (from regular Coen contributor Carter Burwell) is unique and unforgettable. But what I love most about the film is the writing. The Coens take chances and aren’t afraid to do something a little bizarre (like the Mike Yanagita scenes).

Saying Fargo is one of my all-time favorites isn’t exactly original, but I can’t help but love this film. Every time I see it I find something new that I love about it. It’s a 100% unique and compelling piece of work, and if you haven’t seen it yet, I beg you to drop what you’re doing and go watch it.

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