top of page
  • Writer's picturePopEntertainment

Fargo (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jun 3, 2020


FARGO (1996)

Starring Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare, Kristin Rudrüd, Tony Denman, John Carroll Lynch, Larissa Kokernot, Melissa Peterman, Steven Reevis, James Gaulke, Steve Park, Bruce Campbell and Jose Feliciano.

Screenplay by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.

Directed by Joel Coen.

Distributed by Fox Home Entertainment. 98 minutes. Rated R.

In the opening of Fargo there is one of those title cards that informs you that “This is based on a true story.”  The title continued to state that the names had been changed to protect the survivors, but the facts had been kept accurate to pay tribute to the victims.  The fact that it really wasn’t a true story at all is just one of the many quirky eccentricities that led to what is arguably considered Joel and Ethan Coen’s finest film, one that received seven Academy Award nominations.

Eighteen years later, the classic movie is being turned into a cable TV series starring Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman.  In conjunction with that series, the original film is being released on Blu-ray.  So it seems a perfect time to revisit Fargo (the movie, not the city, as the city of Fargo only appears in this film during the opening sequence) to see how it has aged.

Literally, this is the first time that I have seen Fargo since a friend and I caught it at a long-gone theater in Greenwich Village soon after its original opening.  Truth is, in the ensuing years I’ve kind of assumed that it really was telling a true story because I remember not that long before the film came out one of the major plot turns – a criminal trying to get rid of his partner’s body by cutting it up and running the parts through a wood chipper – was briefly a big tabloid story.

In fact, it was only in a rather old companion documentary, undoubtedly made for an early DVD release in the early 2000s, did I find out that the Coens had made most of the story up, though they did fit the true wood chipper anecdote and some other specific true crime details into their story line.

However, the irony to Fargo is that its crime story, while greatly important, is only supplemental to the oddball charm of the movie.  Fargo is more interesting as a character study of the upper midwest United States.  Or is it supposed to be a parody of it?  You’re never completely sure.  I don’t think even the people of Minnesota are.

There is a reason that that old bonus feature short documentary mentioned earlier was entitled “Minnesota Nice.”  It’s characters all speak with a massive midwest twang, a slightly passive aggressive über-politeness and all use pre-Palin Palinese terms like “You betcha,” “Aww, geez,” and entire conversations comprising mostly of the word “Yah.”

The Coens grew up in Minnesota, and this film – which takes place mostly in the suburbs of Minneapolis or in Brainerd, North Dakota (home of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, as is repeatedly pointed out by characters in the film and repeated shots of the giant Paul Bunyan statue entering the city) – takes place in their old backyard.  The Coens look back at their old hometown with bemusement, with the love of a local but also the slight distrust of someone who has moved on.

However, the great artistry of Fargo comes in its contradictions.  It is a slow-moving, well-mannered film that periodically explodes into great violence.  The actual storyline appears to be something out of a classic film noir.

Jerry Lundergaard (this is the role that pretty much exploded respected character actor William H. Macy to stardom) is a used-car salesman who is in the middle of some never explained financial hardships.  He is under the thumb of his smug father-in-law boss Wade (Harve Presnell), a rich man who obviously despises his loser son-in-law. 

Therefore, Jerry cooks up a scheme to hire two thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrüd) and hold her for ransom, which his father-in-law would have to pay off.  Then Jerry would split the ransom with the crooks – and Jerry has told them the ransom would be significantly less money than he would be asking Wade to pay.

They say even the best-laid plans go awry, so it's no big surprise that Jerry's half-assed idea quickly spins off the axis and leads to violence and death.  When a routine traffic stop during the escape leads the kidnappers to kill a state cop and two innocent witnesses, the whole enterprise lands in the lap of Brainerd Sheriff Marge Gunderson.

Because she won a Best Actress Oscar for the role of Marge, it's easy to forget that Frances McDormand does not even appear on screen until about half way through the film.  However, Marge is such an indelibly etched character, just on the right side of patronizing, a very pregnant, soft-spoken, exceedingly polite police woman whose quiet normalcy hide a very skilled detective.  Marge's idea of a harsh rebuke is saying, "Sir, you have no call to get snippy with me!  I'm just doing my job here."  Still, in her own low-key way, Marge plods forward with the case, slowly putting together all the pieces.

But like I said, the mystery plot is a very small part of this film – in fact almost none at all since the audience knows from the very beginning who has done what.  Fargo has more on its mind than being just another police procedural.  It deftly weaves surreal comedy, subtle drama and sudden violent action into a wonderfully jaded American gothic.

Earlier in the story I mentioned that Fargo was arguably the finest film in the impressive long career of the Coen Brothers.  I'm going to take back that proviso, it is simply their finest, most resonant work in a career full of fine films.  Yah?  You betcha.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2014 All rights reserved. Posted: April 9, 2014.

9 views0 comments


bottom of page