Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare
No segment of the population, even the nicest ones have immunity to the cruelest crimes imaginable. In a way the cultures built on being nice may be hiding the darkest aspects of what we can do as people and simply hide it under a veil of pleasantry. Fargo takes an equally delightful and dark look at the underbelly of the Midwest filled to the brim with incredibly entertaining characters.
Financially frustrated, car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) devises a plan to have two men kidnap his wife and split the ransom money. Things go array and collateral damage occurs, which involves local police officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who begins her investigation into this ever-evolving situation.
With enough kindness and sweetness to give you a toothache, Fargo utilizes its location and the people inhabiting it with such precision serving as the perfect counterbalance for the sinister crimes occurring. As an overall tale it becomes about a cop trying to solve a triple homicide, but all of the intricate details and plot structure allow for a level of shallowness to capture some genuinely intriguing plotlines. It feels like a perfect culmination of what the Coen Brothers can accomplish and it certainly serves as one of their greatest works along with their greatest collaborators.
Beginning by showing the white desert of the North Dakota/Minnesota region during the winter, it gives off this idea of cleanliness of untouched snow. Almost like a picture found on a postcard during the holiday season. It shows the majesty this area can present but the complete vastness as well with one driving many miles at a time without finding a house or business. This sets up the murders occurring in this film but it all begins with Jerry. Emasculated and insecure, Jerry lives feeling like less of a man compared to his father-in-law and must contend with his own financial issues. His situation is not made explicitly clear but one can deduce from the fact of him hiring kidnappers to take his wife for ransom that he desperately needs some cash. His need for money also demonstrates his complete disregard for the people around him, especially his poor wife. In a perfect world, Jerry would pull this off, get the money and his wife safely returned to have what exactly? Sure, plenty of funds to take care of the family but with a wife suffering from the traumatic experience of being kidnapped. Jerry presents such a pathetic character and Wiliam H. Macy portrays him impeccably well to fully capture the weasel-like behavior this man displays throughout the film. Watching his reactions to how everything begins to unfold becomes one of the more entertaining aspects of the entire film.
The other main character arrives with Marge and how she learns about the triple homicide along with her attempts to track down those responsible. She exudes kindness in everything she says with others and essentially puts up a mirror with what she can get done with her attitude. The initial introduction comes from her being woken up in bed next to her husband Stan Gunderson (John Carroll Lynch). Her initial scene lays out so much of Marge’s life circumstances and identity as a character. Pregnant with a child, she gets the call and her husband insists on trying to cook her some eggs before she goes. Refusing a few times, it cuts to them at the kitchen table enjoying their breakfast, which creates such a blissful experience of a couple so in love with each other. This creates a wonderful contrast with the blistering snow right outside their door. Everything they need is right before the couple but Marge needs to go to work and with this position she sees people at their nicest and worst.
Marge poses as such an interesting character because her niceness could easily be confused for naivete within a profession where a healthy amount of cynicism certainly helps in getting things done. Despite always speaking with pleasantries and sounding silly at times, Marge’s ability to navigate investigations and perform as a police officer does not get affected. If anything, it makes her even more well-suited seeing as she can utilize her niceness and then get firmer whenever necessary. Following her investigation throughout shows how equally goofy and intuitive she can be and it becomes a delight to watch. Every time she says “Yah” it nearly had me in stitches because it works so well with the character and the way Frances McDormand sells it works wonders.
Blatantly stating it’s a true story in the beginning without actually being one, the Coen Brothers took a big swing in trying to present this film as detailing something ridiculous and seeing if the audience would buy it. In complete transparency, I bought into the ridiculous actions in this story being true and it only made it funnier comprehending it all be a fabrication. Even with wood chipper deaths being an actual danger in this area, the fictional nature of this story works so well because it gets at the real vices of this nation. Money makes people do such wild things and even the ever-optimistic Marge confronts this very notion when investigating this case. All of this work and effort for a ransom payment of $80,000. The evil actions done in the film unequivocally express evil but to also do it for such a menial sum in the long run shows how small an amount becomes necessary for harming others.
Growing up in Minnesota, Joel and Ethan Coen made this film with their hometown as an inspiration. They know the level of niceness permeating this area and how at times it can be a cover for truly sinister actions. This gets displayed with Jerry and how he knowingly gets involved in something so dangerous while also being perfectly pleasant with everyone. Now, I have not done much travel in the Midwest but I trust them to somewhat accurately depict the culture there and their direction in this feature shows some of their collaborative best. Even with Joel getting the sole credit, this has an equal amount of fingerprints all over it from the humor and the way the characters border perfectly on caricature to make them equally intriguing and thoroughly fun to watch.
With many scenes that have remained in notoriety since its release, Fargo proved to be a hit back then and remains a completely engrossing and rapturous work. It pulls us into the freezing temperatures of the northern Midwest to show the beautiful kindness and the vices of its people. Filled with so many laugh-at-loud, kindhearted and gruesome moments, the film maintains its silly tone throughout while also ensuring the serious acts committed also feel the appropriate weight.