Movies We Love: Fargo


Fargo (1996)

I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper.


Facing a mountain of debt, Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) hires thugs Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) and ransom her for money from his wealthy father-in-law Wade (Harve Presnell). When Carl and Gaear leave three bodies in their wake on the car ride to their hideout in Brainerd, Minnesota, the pregnant local police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) gets involved in the case.

Why We Love It

When he first reviewed it in 1996, Roger Ebert wrote “films like Fargo are why I love the movies.” I couldn’t say it any better myself. The crowning achievement in the illustrious careers of Joel and Ethan Coen, it’s the movie that most fully displays their preternatural knack for blending insightful character depictions with a keen sense of the ways genre work. It’s one of the all-time great achievements in filmmaking craft.

From its opening shot — in which a car rumbles down a grim, snowy road to Carter Burwell’s swelling orchestrations — through its last, the film transforms its mundane, Upper Midwestern landscape into the unexpected backdrop for a narrative that deconstructs the modern American soul. The Coens take a conventional film noir narrative and turn it into high drama, forming out of the stories of Jerry and Marge a portrait of the pursuit of the American Dream and its ramifications.

They’re able to do so because they demonstrate almost no interest in the mechanics of the plot or the details of Marge’s investigation. Their screenplay steadfastly rejects every police procedural cliché, starting with the crafting of the main character. She’s not a vengeful renegade but a kind woman happily married to Norm (John Carroll Lynch), possibly the most boring man on Earth. McDormand, in an Oscar winning performance, plays Marge with a cheerful low-key demeanor that makes her seem less like a police chief than the sort of conventional, friendly neighbor one typically encounters in the Midwest. Her scenes with Norm have a warm, personal touch, as the actors fall into the quiet rhythm of a happy couple, sharing early morning breakfast and talking about an upcoming stamp contest.

Marge hardly seems capable of speaking ill of anyone, let alone firing a gun. Yet McDormand reveals the toughness buried beneath the “yahs” and “you betchas” of the Minnesota Nice accent she delivers flawlessly. During an awkward encounter with a high school classmate, and her interview of Jerry, the seriousness that permeates her face and the caustic edge that creeps into her voice reveal a professional every bit as smart and brave as her conventional male counterparts. The brilliance of the performance lies in its utter plausibility. There’s never any doubt that Marge is good at her job and fully committed to seeing the case to its conclusion.

McDormand is helped by the Coens’ eye for the nuances of human interactions and their sharp sense of the most complicated psychology. They fill their screenplay with discussions of grades, parking tickets and pancakes, highlighting the intersection of the mundane real world with the morality play that slowly unfolds. Marge, Jerry and the rest of the characters come across as well-rounded humans, with the details of the plot seamlessly integrated into their separate, clearly established lives. There’s a richness to the various portraits that’s born out of the obvious affection the filmmakers have for the characters and their admirable insistence on filling their movie with observational, naturalistic details instead of tepid clichés.

That richness is also manifest in Macy’s performance, which exudes the desperation of a man barely hanging onto the last shreds of his dignity and his sanity. The vocal iterations, which he projects ever more manically as the narrative advances, are the key to sensing the panic that sets in once Jerry realizes he’s set off a chain of events that he can’t stop. Stuttering, shuffling his feet and seeming forever at a loss for coherent words, Macy presents Jerry as a weak, self-hating man marching on a path to destruction because he knows no other way.

The Coens give texture to the performances in their rendition of the ways the imposing isolation of the long highway roads that serve as a motif mirror the increasing insanity swirling around Marge. Every shot has the fullness of a world both familiar and foreign, as the snow covered country side that’s familiar to anyone from a cold climate takes on the sinister vibe of a prison when, say, Buscemi crouches by a fence, looks right and left, and sees a big blanket of nothing stretched to the horizon. An extreme long shot taken from a high angle shows the long, slow walk Jerry takes to his car, a tiny speck amid a vast expanse of white. In context it feels like a perp walk through his mind, which has been dwarfed by swirls of thoughts and fears.

The visuals have a primal quality that extends to the more classically noirish moments, which unfold in dimly lit, dark settings and others that almost suffocate amid an avalanche of natural light. As shot by Roger Deakins, the Coens’ favorite cinematographer, their subtly heightened qualities enhance the empathy accorded the characters. The blandness of Jerry’s two-story home and sparse office further create a full picture of his life as a sterile hell from which there’s no escape. It’s hard not to feel sorry for someone dealt such a pathetic hand, even if he’s a louse.

The intersecting stories form a thriller replete with a compelling three act structure, moments of extreme tension and the excitement of being unable to predict the direction things will take. Jerry’s spiral of self-destruction is so vast and the character so subjected to forces beyond his control, that one eagerly anticipates the depths to which the Coens plunge with it. It’s the best possible example of the genre, a movie filled with scenes that unfold with an edge spurred by the Coens’ commitment to applying multiple tones to them. Fargo is funny, scary and suspenseful all at once.

It’s also filled with grand, sweeping emotions, the rarest feat of all for a murder mystery, especially one set amid such a comically friendly milieu. The diametrical opposition of Marge and Jerry comprises the heart of the picture, even though they only share two scenes. The former, so strong and eminently capable she could be much more than a small-town police chief married to a simpleton, has found contentment in her ordinary life, free from too much ambition and too many material concerns. Jerry, on the other hand, has big plans. He wants desperately to emulate his gruff, manly father-in-law and sees wealth as his ticket to the big time. Like so many other careless, egotistical dreamers, his plans combust in spectacular fashion.

Fargo can, therefore, be seen as a cautionary tale about the perils of a wrongheaded pursuit of happiness, a warning to anyone who buys too fully into the age old maxim that the streets of America are paved with gold and that striking it rich matters most. These lines, spoken by Marge at the conclusion, resonate most: “There’s more to life than money. And it’s a beautiful day.”

Moment We Fell In Love

It’s hard to pinpoint just one, but I’ll go with Marge’s first appearance. She’s in bed with Norm, it’s early in the morning and her deputy has roused her to tell her about a mass homicide. An ordinary movie would cut from the phone call to a shot of the character fully dressed and arriving at the crime scene. There’d be yellow tape, multiple officers on hand and the blare of police sirens.

Instead, the Coens transition to an unbroken take at the kitchen table, in which Norm makes her eggs, they have breakfast, Marge leaves to start her car, finds that it’s dead, comes back in and asks her husband to jump start it. The sequence illustrates the operating principle that sets Fargo apart from its counterparts. Instead of rushing ahead to the next plot development the filmmakers take the time to create a full sense of the protagonist’s life, revealing to the audience more about who she is and what she values than a thousand overwrought monologues ever could.

Final Thoughts

Fargo achieves nothing short of cinematic perfection. It never steps wrong, never misses a beat in its precise characterizations, remarkable performances by Frances McDormand and William H. Macy and the visual style that emphasizes the almost spiritual vastness of the bleak Upper Midwestern setting. Because it values small, carefully observed character based details over the mechanics of the plot it’s a rich, endlessly rewarding experience. It’s the most complete film the Coens have ever made, nothing short of a movie for the ages.

Check out more Movies We Love.

Robert Levin has written dozens (if not hundreds) of reviews for Film School Rejects since his first piece in 2009. He is the film critic for amNewYork, one of the most widely circulated daily newspapers in New York City and the United States, and the paper's website amNY.com. He's a Brooklyn resident who tries very hard not to be a cliche.

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