Fargo (1996) dir. Joel Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, William H. Macy
One of the all-time great black comedies, “Fargo” remains the Coen Bros' best film. Although with the number of rabid fans out there will be debaters, and certainly “Miller’s Crossing”, and “The Big Lebowski” have large followings, but since their Oscar says “Fargo” on it, this is the film they will be remembered for.
The snowcapped Midwest never looked so depressing. The film opens on a majestic long shot of a wintry road in the middle of nowhere, a lone car driving in the distance. It’s Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a hapless used car salesman on his way to make a deal with 2 equally hapless criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap and ransom off Lundegaard’s wife. The scheme is ridiculous and an act of desperation for a man seemingly on his last legs. We’re never told why he feels he must ransom off his wife for a measly $80,000. Perhaps it’s gambling debts, or perhaps it’s to re-maculate himself after years of ridicule by his in laws.
Regardless of his reasons, Jerry’s plan soon falls apart. The plot to collect the ransom is interrupted by Jerry’s bigheaded father in law, who gets shot and killed during the exchange. Soon after, Jerry’s wife, falls victim as well.
Meanwhile, on Jerry’s trail is the unassuming pregnant policewoman, Marge, played by Frances McDormand (who also won an Oscar). Marge has small town politeness, but the instinct and intuition of a hard boiled cop. She soon connects the dots which leads her to Jerry’s workplace. Marge innocently questions Jerry about a stolen car from his lot, and a few minutes later Jerry crumbles from the tension implicating himself as a suspect. The film ends with a legendary climax, involving the now-famous wood-chipper scene.
The Coens will likely not make a better film than “Fargo” because it uses all the tools, techniques and stylizations that make them “the Coen Bros” but in its most audience-accessible form. To compare it to, say, “O Brother Where Art Thou”, “Big Lebowski” or “Miller’s Crossing” they all have an anachronistic self-reverential feel (namely the Preston Sturges influence), but “Fargo” is their most honest and personal film. And Marge is also their most honest hero/heroine. Violence and crime is sloppy and criminals, for the most part, aren’t smart. So the characters feel like real people and that they could actually exist, however ridiculous their actions might be.
Technically, the Coens left their flashiness at the door and concentrated on story over style. The signature Carter Burwell sound is present though. A master of mood and atmosphere, Burwell’s melancholy score evokes sorrow, depression and bitter sadness. Sadness is key because for such a peaceful place, the events that transpired couldn’t have happened to nicer people. Marge’s final speech gives us the lesson with such simple and honest words:
“There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don't you know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well, I just don't understand it.”
Buy it here: Fargo (Special Edition)