Fargo (1996)    3 Stars

“An ordinary place, an extraordinary thriller”


Fargo (1996)

Director: Joel Coen

Cast: William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi

Synopsis: Jerry Lundegaard’s inept crime falls apart due to his and his henchmen’s bungling and the persistent police work of the quite pregnant Marge Gunderson.




The ‘based on true events’ disclaimer the Coen brothers insert at the opening of this quirky picture is untrue, something they later admitted and which was added in order to help the audience to suspend its disbelief. I suppose it’s a bit of a cheat, but it’s also strangely reassuring, because it’s a little unsettling to think that characters like some of those in this film really moved amongst us. Fargo is a simple story told in a convoluted — but never confusing — style. It’s about a criminal plot that goes tragically wrong, and in less talented hands than the Coens it could have been something of a routine drama. But with typical audaciousness, the brothers inject a hefty dose of humour and allocate their characters vague eccentricities that make them memorable, but still believable, creations. They take the Noir ingredients of greed and desperation, play these base instincts off against winsome domestic contentment and small town folksiness, and use a taciturn sociopath straight out of some dark crime thriller to stir up the mix and drive the plot forward. The randomness of the incidents depicted is compelling.

The film takes place in the snowy environs of a Minnesotan town in which Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is the ‘Executive Manager’ of a car showroom owned by his belligerent father-in-law Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell). Jerry needs $750,000 to finance a parking lot scheme he’s devised, and with typical haplessness decides that the best way to raise the cash is to hire a couple of villains to kidnap his wife. He makes contact with Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi), a mousy bundle of nervous energy and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), a brooding close-mouthed Swede, through one of the mechanics in the auto shop of the showroom, and the first clues to these protagonists’ incompetence and the fact that Jerry’s scheme is doomed to failure immediately becomes apparent. Carl is annoyed because Jerry is an hour late, while Jerry insists that he’s on time. This misinformation, or failure to communicate, effectively reoccurs throughout their dealings. Jerry isn’t even able to contact his hired thugs, having to either wait for Carl to phone him or try to contact them through the mechanic go-between, which means that, when his father-in-law unexpectedly agrees to finance his parking lot scheme, Jerry’s unable to contact them to call off the kidnapping. More importantly, though, Jerry has told them that the ransom is $80,000, when in fact it’s $1 million which means that even if the exchange goes without a hitch he’ll probably get nothing.

The kidnapping of Jean Lundegaard (Kristin Rudrud) triggers the beginning of a chain of events which sees Jerry’s plan go increasingly awry, and despite his role as villain, we feel some sympathy for him simply because he is so ineffectual and impotent. Both of his schemes are quickly snatched out of his control. His father-in-law will only pay him a finder’s fee for the parking lot scheme, and insists on handing over the ransom money to the kidnappers himself. Macy is one of the US’s finest character actors and his performance here, all nervous broken sentences and hesitations, is something to behold. You can sense the knots tying Jerry up inside, and realise that he’s not a bad man, just a foolish one whose ineptitude leads him down a tragic path.

The key character in Fargo, however, isn’t Jerry Lundegaard but Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), Fargo’s pregnant police chief — even though the movie’s 30 minutes old before she makes an appearance. Marge, like most of the townsfolk, talks with this strange Minnesotan accent which strangulates even a simple word like ‘yes’ until it becomes ‘yaah.’ She has this perky cheerfulness, shared by the other townsfolk and a love of junk food matched by her devoted husband Norm (John Caroll Lynch). All their scenes together involve either food or bed, the simple pleasures of life. But Marge’s folksiness disguises a keen investigative mind which enables her to divine the secret that Jerry hides — or the fact that he is hiding a secret — after a seemingly unrelated encounter with a former school friend who is living a lie.

There’s not much to find wrong with Fargo. It’s arguably the Coen Brother’s finest film — which is saying a lot — and the sheer quirkiness that lurks beneath the commonplace could only have come from their collective vision. Bared down to its basic constituents, the story is a straightforward one, but in their hands these common ingredients are transformed beyond recognition. Take for example, the scene in which a terrified Jean Lundegaard attempts to flee barefoot in the snow from her kidnappers with her hands bound behind her back and a black hood over her head so that she can’t see where she’s going. Showalter cackles at the way she stumbles around, nearly running into trees, and taking random turns before falling over; and although her terror and distress are palpable, we can also see why Showalter finds her antics so funny. It takes a special kind of talent to pull off a scene like that.

The Coens are helped by note-perfect performances from a cast comprised mostly of character actors. Buscemi gives another hyperactive performance, his lines spilling from his mouth like coins from a slot machine, while Stormare’s stolid broodiness, which initially gives him the demeanour of a harmless dolt, rapidly becomes darkly menacing when we witness how cheaply he holds life, and we’re left wondering just what is going on in his mind during all those impenetrable silences. Probably as near-perfect as a movie can get, this one isn’t to be missed.

(Reviewed 24th June 2012)