Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Release Date: April 5th, 1996 (US); May 31st, 1996 (UK)
Genre: Crime; Drama; Thriller
Starring: Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, William H. Macy
A jack of all trades, and perhaps one of the best. Shuttled forth by a bleakly comedic narrative, Fargo occasionally amps up the awkward, tie-loosening tension before ploughing right and left into a caveat of blunt criminality. There’s an inherently dramatic element too, the underbelly of bumbling luck and the ultimate tale of karma. The Coen brothers boast a unique style; precise in their crafting and often ironic in their delivery, a deliriously absorbing mantra that stretches far and wide here. Characters gargle seemingly innocuous lines of dialogue, yet a nonchalant poise often demands bouts of laughter. And therein lies the film’s most admirable quality: it makes you guffaw through moments of sadism, but never denounces you for doing so. The sibling duo at the helm aren’t overly serious in their direction (only when required), yet still manage to divulge a genuine sense of authentic story-telling. In Fargo, every scene holds a certain weight and although engagement with the particulars is at the viewer’s discretion, there’s never a sense of an overbearing burden. Yaaaa.
In Fargo, North Dakota, police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) — a woman as cheerful as she is pregnant — is called to a road-side accident harbouring two casualties. Only it’s not an accident, and is instead part of a series of unfortunate events set alight by car salesman Gerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) in an attempt to recoup much needed cash for his family. A master plan that would garner appreciation from the likes of John Kramer, Gerry hires a pair of quintessential henchmen to kidnap his wife and subsequently demand an $80,000 ransom, the spoils of which would be shared between the trio of plotters. Only Gerry is deviously untangling his own personal puppeteering strings, ready to juggle them against his father-in-law in an attempt to gain one million dollars from the extravaganza. In Gerry’s anxiety-plastered eyes, family comes first… and last.
There’s an ever-present aura that wilfully jaunts around any Coen film. It’s easy to spot, deliberate in implementation but astutely subtle as to never degrade proceedings. Drawing upon the experience of 16 previous films, seeing the words “Joel and Ethan Coen” sprawl across the screen nowadays prompts an intrinsic knowledge that meticulous sardonicism will soon be lingering. Released when their three-decade-old filmmaking odyssey was eighteen years younger, Fargo might just be the sibling duo’s most complete diamond of irony. Some films might be more wholesome in their flippant ideology, for example O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its caper-esque comedic quality, whereas others will undoubtedly offer greater absorbency through numerous interpretations and delightful tones, such as Inside Llewyn Davis. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with another Coen creation as genre-splicing as Fargo though, for this conglomeration of classification is what cinema is all about.
In a Minnesotan setting bitten by frost and populated with oddities constantly attempting to cover their innocuous tracks (“I don’t vouch for him”) the Coen brothers present and develop a number of wholly recognisable characters. Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud are the absolute epitome of a caricature criminal partnership: the snivelling manipulator, out of his depth but armed with a motor mouth, and the dumb brute, purposeful only in violent outbursts or foul language. Gerry Lundegaard is the struggling businessman who ventures further into the ocean of uncertainty than he should, and is all the more blundering for it. His father-in-law Wade Gustafson has more money than patience, and decreases in accessibility when he knows his cash is at risk (“A lotta damn money” is one of the funniest gags). These characters are familiar, but they are also affectionately handled and escorted through a variety of tonal preoccupations, from comedy to crime to drama, constantly forging energy and slap-stick-like commotion. Our child-bearing detective Marge is the only figure who detours from the norm; noticeably pregnant, deliriously good-humoured and actively chasing murderers are three traits that do not often mesh together. This hodgepodge collection of characters coupled alongside a narrative that explodes with vibrancy, will refrain from giving you enough time to reflect on what just happened before it makes you ponder what’s going to happen next.
Yet, in spite of a growing sense of madness, the Coens always appear fully in control. Although the narrative is idiosyncratic — one minute a Steve Buscemi facial expression will have your jaw aching and the next a gunshot will leave you in shock — there is a point, a certain method, to all on-screen antics. The craziness of each character reflects the madness of his or her actions, prompting us to consider the length of a person’s sanity during tough times, whilst simultaneously sending out a nod towards the wondrous scope of cinema. Masterfully, the Coens develop a blunt and sadistic sense of realism amongst the hilarities. Fargo details karma as a rapid mule with more bite than the cold landscape from which it festers. In this tale of people playing people playing people, only the people face the consequences.
Shepherded by Roger Deakins’ icy cinematography, the arctic setting becomes a player of its own as it seeps into every other aspect of the film. Most characters endure cold minds. Lasting shots of mundaneness appear frozen to the screen. There’s a stiff lack of motivation, embodied emphatically by Marge’s police partner who can only conjure up phrases such as, “Watch your step Margie,” and, “You okay Margie?” as the heavily pregnant woman inspects dead bodies. Even the comedy is frosty — plotting and kidnapping is carried out in an atmosphere far more jovial than intense. Though, the funny buck stops at murder, an action presented more chillingly and viscerally than any other.
Regular Coen contributors Frances McDormand and Steve Buscemi are once again on hand and, alongside William H. Macy, deliver terrific performances. Humour is the common denominator for the trio, though the source varies. For McDormand, an incessant politeness in the face of violence and misnomer creates a peculiar dynamic. McDormand’s poise throughout sees Marge one step ahead of the game, even when she’s a day or two behind the others. Entirely the opposite, then, is Macy as the bumbling goof businessman Gerry. Gerry’s idiocy is built from a spectrum of nervous facial expressions and worried posturing; an unassured plight that sees no positive solution. He’s anxious to a T, but so dud-like that you sort of expect his ridiculous plan to come off in a spectacularly inadvertent fashion. The third of three great performances derives from the acting chops of Steve Buscemi, whose raging demeanour funds a big-mouthed little guy not far removed from Tommy DeVito. He relentlessly contradicts himself and thus withholds attracting seriousness, but it’s obvious that Buscemi is having a blast with the role and fun is infectious. It also helps that he gets many of the funniest quips.
The Coen brothers leave nothing to chance and inject Fargo with fastidious application — it’s no surprise that a wintry white landscape pronounces vivid red blood. The film will keep you guessing, is littered with humour and completely embraces the medium from which it thrives. In doing so, it even has the wherewithal to reflect on the outrageousness of its characters’ wrong-doings.
In the often correct words of Roger Ebert, “Films like Fargo are why I love the movies”.