Film Appreciation: Fargo

Film Appreciation: Fargo

The Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996) is perhaps one of the most upbeat films you will ever see about a brutal kidnapping and murder. It takes an established cinematic format, the police procedural with elements of noir, and then moves us to a new place by adding dark comedy. Naturalistic settings and straightforward visual presentation almost give the impression Fargo is a documentary. The ‘Minnesota Nice’ accents and eccentricities of the characters invalidate that theory and leave you searching for a new one.

Oldsmobile sales dealer Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) hires two sleazy cons, laconic Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) and the motormouthed Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi), to kidnap his wife. They are to collect a hefty ransom from Jerry’s boss (and father-in-law) Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell). Jerry will split the ransom with Gaear and Carl, besides giving them a car.

Almost immediately, things start to go wrong. While transporting Jean to a hiding place, Gaear and Carl are pulled over by a state trooper. Gaear shoots the trooper and two eyewitnesses. Police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) begins investigating the murders. She is perky, relentless- and six months pregnant. The cons do not stand a chance.

The Coens put a “based on actual events” title at the beginning of the film, but insisted for years it was not based on a true story. In later years, they have admitted friends told them about a couple of stories in Minnesota (one involving an attorney named Eugene Thompson who hired someone to kill his wife, another involving a woman who was kidnapped and later found tied to a tree). The Coens continue to maintain the characters and details of the story are fictional. They say Fargo’s opening title is a hint for audiences to see the film as something other than an ordinary thriller.

Acting by the ensemble cast is strong throughout, but McDormand’s Marge anchors this film. She does not appear until after the thirty-three minute mark, but we are quite ready for her. We have seen the unfolding tragedy sparked by Jerry’s plan and wonder if the two slimy cons might actually get away with it. In typical fashion, the Coens offer Marge as a heartening presence but do not make her overtly reassuring. For one thing, there is McDormand’s rather quirky speech pattern (she draws out the ends of her sentences). There is also the matter of her Elmer Fudd hat. On the other hand, the Coens have several scenes of her loving relationship with husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch). I think these contradictions, along with her advanced pregnancy, work to keep tensions high throughout the story.

Technical elements on Fargo are strong as well. Cinematographer Roger Deakins had quite a challenge with this film, as the shooting took place during the second mildest winter in a century. Artificial snow was used in many scenes, and some outdoor shots moved to Minnesota, North Dakota, and Canada. Other cinematographers praised his work, saying it is difficult to photograph multiple scenes with snow and hold an audience’s interest. Longtime Coen associate Carter Burwell created the effective musical score.

This is a hard film to categorize, and an even harder one to stop watching.

Theme: Crime + Dark Comedy

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