Fargo, is a film that defies the convention and logic of traditional cinema, yet still manages to work. No one wants to see Minnesota in winter—it’s a frozen hell-scape in my opinion. Nor do most people who want to watch a crime film full of murder and mystery go to the theater wanting a comedy. Yet, somehow Fargo left me craving more that strange mix of snow, blood, and dark humor that defines the film.
In this 1996 Coen Brothers film, horror and humor work together in a way that provides both the maximum cinematic impact as well as an honest depiction of human nature. Fargo typifies what we’ve come to expect from the dynamic pair that has continued to push limits of various genres in their more recent films such as O Brother Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men. By challenging the conventions of various genres, the Coen Brothers force us to think about the complexity of human nature and life, which rarely fits into a neat box.
Fargo is a series of increasingly brutal and seemingly random murders, yet the way in which the film is shot and edited prevents the film from being gruesome and promotes a light, often humorous, perspective on a dark topic. If you can laugh at someone getting shot in the face or being shoved into a wood chipper, you definitely have a messed up sense of humor, but that also means the directors have succeeded in pushing the comedic boundaries of crime film.
With each passing scene, the movie gets progressively more far-fetched, but the honest writing and compelling performances, which are established and maintained throughout the film, allow the audience to buy into the story. There’s a balance of realistic characters and highly stylized cinematography that come together to continue the perfect marriage of opposites that defines this movie. By showing humor in death, Fargo conveys the realistic absurdity of real life.
Jerry Lundegaard (William Macy) is the idiot mastermind who plans to have his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) kidnapped to profit from the ransom, which he thinks will be paid for by Jean’s wealthy father. Macy’s performance is complex in that he typifies an all-American, mild-mannered Midwestern dad, yet he is obviously profoundly different from the average American man because he is planning to kidnap his wife. To top it off, he’s not your typical evil mastermind either because his plot is so ill-conceived that it can only be a plan conceived by a true idiot. Jerry is an undeniably horrible person based on his actions, but he’s so stupid we can’t help but like him.
The film also follows the two criminals, Carl and Gaear (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, respectively). Carl is the loudmouth who plays the leader of the troop while Gaear is silent and stoic but ultimately the cold-blooded killer of the group. Each scene between the two is undeniably witty as the two have the comedic timing of Laurel and Hardy, only their comedic interplay often occurs as a result of their murderous misadventures.
Buscemi’s odd mannerisms and even stranger appearance are often the butt of the joke, that he never seems in on. The anger and offbeat angst of Buscemi’s character, Carl, is simply fun to watch. Yet, there is a special place in my heart for Stormare who hardly says anything, yet he manages to get the audience to hang on his every word and gesture. The way he absentmindedly shoves Buscemi’s leg into the wood chipper while his cigarette hangs out of his mouth still sends a shiver down my spine and a smile to my face.
Despite the rich narrative already described, the most heartwarming and compelling storylines belong to Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). Although she only appears halfway through the movie, the viewers are immediately drawn to Marge. Her chipper attitude, deep love for her husband, and direct attitude create a complex and dynamic character that is not often shown in portrayals of women in movies. Marge is a police officer first, a woman second, and that simple change in how Marge is portrayed in comparison to other similar female roles in different films changes the entire feeling of the film. Frances talks about her inspiration for the character of Marge as well as her relationship with the Coen Brothers in this insightful interview.
My sole criticism of the film is that while the film is thoroughly enjoyable, and undeniably remains true to the spirit of “Minnesota nice,” it is difficult to believe that viewers could leave this movie truly believing that these events had taken place in real life as the opening title credits claim. While viewers can suspend disbelief in the beginning of the film and buy into the idea that this story is true and these characters are loosely based on real characters, I do not believe the film is as successful in the suspension of disbelief throughout the film as many critics and moviegoers have argued in the past. The fine line between character acting and caricature is, for me, often crossed in this film. Jerry Lundegaard’s accent is at times just a bit too overwrought for him to be truly believable, but the elements of caricature aid in adding to the appeal of the characters in most cases and, ultimately, the humor, which is what makes this film so successful if not realistic in a traditional sense.
In any other setting with any other accent, Jerry would not have been funny or endearing, yet under these circumstances, he manages to still be likeable. He is undoubtedly responsible for the deaths of his wife, father-in-law and countless other strangers unwittingly caught up in this kidnapping scheme gone horribly wrong, yet it’s impossible to label him as evil. Everything in this movie is of the highest quality, whether it’s the script, he costumes, the cast, directors, and most of all the script—all work together to make one of the most memorable and enjoyable films of the 1990s.
— Kayla Pierle