Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Written by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen.
Starring: Frances McDormand (Marge Gunderson), William H. Macy (Jerry Lundegaard), Steve Buscemi (Carl Showalter), Peter Stormare (Gaear Grimsrud), Harve Presnell (Wade Gustafson), John Carroll Lynch (Norm Gunderson), Kristin Rudrüd (Jean Lundegaard), Larry Brandenburg (Stan Grossman), Steve Reevis (Shep Proudfoot), Bruce Bohne (Lou), Steve Park (Mike Yanagita), Tony Denman (Scotty Lundegaard), Cliff Rakerd (Officer Olson), Bain Boehlke (Mr. Mohra).
There is a scene late in Fargo that has always struck me as perfect, yet it hardly ever gets mentioned when the film is being discussed. This is probably because every scene in Fargo is just about perfect – and this one seems like a throwaway scene – between two minor characters (one of whom doesn’t appear in any other scene). Fargo is one of the only movies by the Coen Brothers where the pair do not give themselves any leeway – any room for their strange offshoots and tangents that are often as great as the main action in the movie. Every scene in the movie advances the plot – yes, even the Mike Yanagita scene, which I’ll get to later. The scene I’m referring to however takes place between Officer Olson (Cliff Rakerd) and Mr. Mohra (Bain Boehlke). On the surface, this short scene is just in the movie to provide Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) the information she needs a few scenes later on where to go and look for the kidnappers – which she does, and finds the film’s most grisly discovery. It’s a short scene where Mohra describes his meeting with Carl (Steve Buscemi) – which we don’t see – at a bar, where Carl complains about needing a woman and “going crazy, down by the lake”. The scene is all done in one shot, and is a master class in acting and writing – and in a way captures the overall point of Fargo – that lurking behind the funny accents and over-politeness of the Minnesota denizens lays darkness and violence. Mohra cannot bring himself to use the language Carl uses – but that darkness is still there.
The Coens have said they were inspired to make Fargo by the efforts – 12 years earlier – to try and raise funds to make their independent debut, Blood Simple. Minnesota natives, they naturally approached people in the area where they are from – and encountered what is known as “Minnesota-nice”. To some, the Coens are mocking the people in this movie – but I’ve never thought that. The accents are perhaps slightly exaggerated, but not too much, and any ribbing the Coens do is overall good natured, and has a basis in reality. Most of the characters in Fargo are all outwardly nice people – but in reality they all have darkness beneath them.
The movie opens with Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a car salesman who works for his father-in-law Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell). Jerry’s in a bind – in fact he’s in several binds – and needs money badly. He hires Carl and Gaear (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife Jean (Kristen Rudrud) so that Wade will pay the ransom – which he’ll then split with the kidnappers. Jerry wants to invest in a parking lot to make himself good money – but he has none of his own to do it with. Not only that, but in a scheme that obviously went awry before the movie started (for who knows what reason) – he owes someone else hundreds of thousands of dollars for cars he said he bought, but never did. Jerry doesn’t keep all his schemes so big – he’s not above ripping off clients a few hundred extra dollars on a car purchase for a “true coat”.
In many ways, Jerry is a prototypical Coen brothers character – someone who gets in over his head, and is punished throughout the movie. And he’s certainly deserving of that punishment – everything that happens in the film is basically his fault – and he’s too much of a coward to do anything about it. Even Jerry however remains at least somewhat sympathetic – in that scene where he comes back to his car, and starts to scrap the ice off the windows before he freaks out for example, there is not a person who lives in an area that gets snow that wouldn’t feel for him. He’s also spent his entire married life being belittled and bullied by his father-in-law Wade – although whether Wade’s bullying turned Jerry into the spineless man he is, or whether he always was spineless is information we are not given. Like all the characters in Fargo, Jerry just wants a little bit extra – a little bit of a better life. Unfortunately, everything he touches turns to shit. Macy is brilliant in this role – it’s the best work of his career – as we feel how the weight of everything slowly becomes too much for him to bare until he snaps – in that wonderful scene where his voice cracks when he tells Marge “I’m the executive sales manager”.
Carl and Gaear are almost like an old school comedy team – with Buscemi being little and motor mouthed, and Stormare are large, imposing and mostly silent. Buscemi, who had two small roles in Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink, is given arguably the best role of his film career here – he is funny in many of his scenes (the initial drive to Jerry’s, where he tells Gaear that if he doesn’t start talking, then Carl will also shut up – only to on and on and on is a highlight), no matter how dark the film gets, Buscemi still has moments of comedy right next to moments of violence (“Be quiet back there or we’re going to have to, you know, shoot you”). Carl is also the only major character who comes from somewhere else other than Minnesota – and he’s the only one that gets outwardly hostile throughout the movie – getting increasingly frustrated with all the Minnesota-nice he encounters until he can’t take it anymore. Gaear is mainly silent, but he’s the more ruthless of the two – Carl talks a big game, but when it’s time to actually do anything that is when Gaear steps up and takes control.
Interestingly, McDormand’s Marge doesn’t show up in the film until we’re already a third of the way into the movie. The kidnapping of Jean has taken place – but Carl and Gaear have run into some problems in Brainerd, and had to kill three people. So McDormand’s police chief is called to the scene – and immediately pieces together the crime correctly – unlike her somewhat dimwitted deputy. She’s nice about pointing that out to him though. Marge is seven months pregnant, seemingly happily married to Norm (John Carrol Lynch) – and a good police officer to boot. Which brings me to the Mike Yanagita scenes in the film – which are the ones that seemingly confuse many people, because they seem to be the only ones that don’t directly advance the plot. I’ve always taken the traditional reading of the scene – that while Marge is in Minneapolis following up leads, she begrudgingly agrees to meet Mike, an old high school classmate, and immediately senses it was a mistake when their meeting gets off to an awkward start, and it’s clear Mike has “feelings” for her. Then later, when she finds out that almost everything Mike told her was a lie, it gets her thinking – and she decides to go back and challenge Jerry for a second time at the car lot – at which point, he cracks and takes off. But a few months ago, when The Dissolve had Fargo as it’s movie of the week, one of the contributors had a different interpretation – so I watched Fargo this time to see if it made sense – and it does. Marge doesn’t tell Norm about meeting with Mike – and she makes herself up before she goes. I’m not saying Marge was prepared to have an affair with Mike – and it does become apparent fairly early in their meeting that it was a mistake, and the lies still get Marge to go back and confront Jerry. But, for the first time, I saw the ulterior motive in Marge’s meeting with Mike – maybe, like the rest of the characters, she was at least somewhat looking for the life she doesn’t have – something a “little bit better”. She is smart and capable as a police officer, yet she’s struck in small town Minnesota. Her husband is loving and supportive, sure, but also somewhat passive – the two have essentially swapped traditional gender roles, with Marge being the cop who goes out into the world to make money, while Norm stays home makes her eggs, or brings her lunch at the office. Perhaps, for one last time before her life forever changes when she has her first child, Marge was looking for “what might have been”. This puts her actions in a slightly different light – her brilliant monologue to Gaear at the end of the film (“And for what? A little bit of money”) not only lecturing him, but reminding herself she has a fairly good life herself.
I have seen Fargo countless times – it probably ranks alongside Stone’s Natural Born Killers, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Scorsese’s GoodFellas as my most watched film ever. And yet the film never gets old. The film marked another step forward for the Coen’s – yes, the film still owes a debt to some genre films of the past, but it also feels wholly, uniquely itself. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is brilliant – making the snow covered environments both cold, and forbidding looking. The score by Carter Burwell is the best he has ever written. Fargo moves with almost ruthless efficiency from one scene to the next. Like most the Coen’s films, it punishes their characters for their moral failings – Jerry in particular – but also those around them. Poor Jean who did nothing wrong, and Jerry and Jean’s son Scotty who is going to be left all by himself. The film is quietly merciless. But it’s also funny and humane. It is one of the best crime movies ever made – and quite possibly the best films the Coen have ever, or will ever, make.