Fargo (1996)


“Aw jeez, this is a great film, yah” is exactly how I’d expect the characters in Fargo to react to the film. I have seen this film a few times over the years, and I revisited it recently as a response to my adoration of the TV show that bears the same time and the exact kind of quirky humor. What I imagine was set out to be a darkly comical procedural turned into a classic of the genre, and Joel and Ethan Coen probably knew that this was the moment they entered the pantheon of great American filmmakers. Fargo is a deliciously dark and insanely entertaining film and a true masterpiece of both neo-noir and dark comedy.

Like all the best crime films, Fargo features a very simple story – Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy) is a down-on-his-luck car salesman who needs money. He enlists the help of two sketchy characters – the ratty, utterly annoying Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and the dour and ultra-violent Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) – to kidnap his wife for a ransom, which they will share. However, things obviously do not go as planned, and by the end of this film, seven people are dead. Tracking this crime is Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), a dedicated police chief with a knack for solving crimes.

I really believe that Frances McDormand is one of the greatest actresses of all time – she is so versatile and is able to do so much with any role. Her collaborations with the Coen Brothers are amongst her best and considering that she is married to Joel Coen, it isn’t a surprise she is given some fascinating roles in many of their films. However, Fargo was truly her greatest performance (or at least until Olive Kitteridge came along, which is probably on par with her performance here), and it isn’t surprising that Fargo launched her into a new level of acclaim. Despite only appearing at the start of the second act, she commands the screen wonderfully, playing perhaps the best cop ever put on screen. One aspect of her performance is how she captures the “Minnesota nice” personality, but rather than doing a caricature, she actually balances the humor with some emotional gravitas. She is absolutely astounding as Marge, and what can only be assumed to be intended to be a good performance resulted in a deeply moving and memorable one that will go down in the cinematic history books as one of the most delightfully wonderful performances ever committed to screen. McDormand clearly had fun with the role, and that makes a big difference because this is a fun role and she was able to explore the character in a way that made her unique and mesmerizing.

However, McDormand wasn’t alone in giving a great performance, because William H. Macy was a true revelation here as well. He is a very hard-working actor, and he’s had some very memorable supporting performances over the years. Fargo offered him the opportunity to show off his abilities as a leading man. If there is one aspect of the Coen Brothers I adore, is their keen eye for using actors in unexpected ways – and despite their strange obsession with George Clooney in 2000s, they have managed to use many character actors in bigger roles, and brought they suitable acclaim. Fargo is Macy’s greatest performance – he plays a nervous, shifty and cold-hearted man, but does so through giving an incredibly hilarious performance. McDormand may be the moral center of this film, but every moment that Macy is on screen, he steals the show. His performance forces the audience to both laugh and cringe, and he deserves to go down in history with this film’s status as a classic of the genre.

Finally, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare round out the principal cast, playing the thugs that are responsible for everything that goes wrong. Arguably, I have never been impressed by Peter Stormare, because I find his characters very derivative – honestly, it is the same in Fargo. The only difference is, here it works well. He speaks very little and occupies the position of the sinister tough guy, and to my surprise, every time I see this film, I am legitimately terrified of his character – he is actually truly scary, and whereas other characters in this film are genuinely sleazy people, Stormare is actually a horrifying figure. There is that iconic moment towards the end of the film that has pretty much defined Fargo, but it still haunts me as one of the most despicable moments I have ever seen in a film – and if you’ve seen Fargo, you’ll know exactly what I am talking about.

Having said that, is there any actor who is as recognizable yet unrewarded as Steve Buscemi? Other than John Goodman, has there ever been an actor that is both incredibly famous, but constantly shackled with character-actor roles like Buscemi? He certainly has an incredible filmography, and perhaps he prefers it that way. I have to say I really admire Buscemi as an actor – he is pretty brilliant in nearly everything he does, and I have to say something about Fargo – it isn’t his best performance, yet he is still one of the best parts of it. The reason is this – whereas Fargo was a career high for both McDormand and Macy, it was simply another in Buscemi’s long string of brilliant performances, and it was simply his versatility. Part of me just wanted this film to be about him. Fargo gives Buscemi a stage to show off his unique talents, and while it may have given his career a bump, it was just another example of why he is one of the best working actors today.

Fargo is a great crime film, I think everyone can agree on that. However, precisely what makes it a great crime film is still the subject of debate. The most obvious reason is the manner in which it is so unlike anything else we’ve seen before – dark comedies often use violence and unlikable characters to their advantage, but hardly ever was it done in such a realistic way – Fargo didn’t invent the genre, and it has many inspirations that went into the making of it, but it certainly popularized the genre, and led the way for many other similarly-themed films and television shows that managed to blend dark comedy and crime seamlessly – without Fargo, I don’t think shows like Breaking Bad or Dexter would exist. It is a contentious issue because there are so many dark comedies out there like Fargo that predate it, but I do think Fargo played a big role in defining the genre. It is never ridiculous or excessive – it has a simple story and follows it logically without too many diversions, and at the core it is just a basic police procedural – it is the development of the characters and the quirky sense of humour that made Fargo so incredible, and it paved the way for many similarly darkly comical films and TV shows to come out, particularly the television show based on this film, which is one of the greatest achievements in television history, if you ask me.

Fargo starts off with the words: “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred” – the concept of truths and falsehoods are the core of this film – all of these characters grapple with the idea of honesty – Jerry, Carl, and Gaear are dishonest, duplicitous people who only lure themselves deeper into the trap that they are unintentionally setting for themselves, whereas Marge is a character who has learned to be very suspicious of those who cross her professional path, but in her own personal life, she often fails to see when others are taking advantage of her trusting nature. I only mention this aspect of the film because I feel like cinema really is about one enveloping theme – truth. Every film, to some extent, explores honesty, felicity, and truth in some way, and by starting off their film with the claim that it is based on a true story, when it actually isn’t, is simply the Coen Brothers commenting on the fact that cinema can both be about dishonesty while being dishonest itself. It is such subtle nuances in their filmmaking that make the Coen Brothers some of the most innovative filmmakers to ever work.

The Coen Brothers may not have a clearly distinctive visual style, but they certainly have their own way of making their films look distinctive. In 2007, they released their most successful film (in terms of awards), No Country for Old Men. In that film, also a crime film, the action takes place over arid and barren plains, which is a stark contrast to Fargo, which is defined by its beautiful white snowy landscapes. Yet, both films (just like many of the Coen Brothers’ other films) were shot by Roger Deakins, one of the best cinematographers of all time. Fargo is a brilliantly written film with great performances, but the utterly exquisite cinematography took it above and beyond everything else. There is just something so strangely beautiful about blood being splattered over pure-white snow. The visual aesthetic of Fargo lingers in your mind long after you’ve seen the film.

Fargo is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. It is certainly one of the Coen Brothers’ best achievements, and everything about this film is just wonderful. The acting is superb, the writing is amazing and the themes are incredible. It is even better that the film is just beautiful to look at. I would definitely consider this amongst the best films Joel and Ethan Coen ever made, and if it wasn’t for my personal favorite, A Serious Man, I’d consider this their best film. As directors, the brothers have had their share of failures, but it is important to note that Fargo is not one of them, and it is almost enough to forgive them for The Ladykillers…almost.


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