Thursday, March 08, 2012


Originally Written and Posted at on 9/18/05 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.

Supposedly based on a true story, Fargo is set in a snowy little town called in Minnesota in 1987. A desperate car salesman's wife is kidnapped by a couple of men hired by her husband so he can get a hefty ransom from her father. Investigating a series of murders that are linked to the kidnapping is a pregnant, witty police chief from that small town. Written, produced, and directed by Joel Ethan Coen, Fargo is a witty, violent, quirky crime film that has all the ingredients into what makes the Coen Bros. one of the finest duos in cinema. Starring Joel Coen's wife and regular Frances McDormand plus longtime collaborator Steve Buscemi along with William H. Macy, Peter Stormare, John Carroll Lynch, Kristin Rudrud, Harve Presnell, Larry Brandenburg, and Steve Park. Fargo is a wonderful black comedy from the Coen Brothers.

Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) drives to a small town in Fargo, North Dakota from Minneapolis to meet a couple of criminals named Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and the more quiet Gaesar Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) through Jerry's mechanic friend Shep Proudfoot (Steve Revis). Unable to obtain loands from his father-in-law Wade (Harve Presnell), Jerry hires Carl and Gaesar to kidnap his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrud) for a hefty ransom they split as Jerry also loans them a car. After returning home to eat dinner with Wade, Jean, and his son Scotty (Tony Denman), Jerry learns he could get a loan from Wade as he tries to talk to Shep to cancel the plans. Instead, Carl and Gaesar kidnap Jean as Jerry learns what had just happened as Carl contacts Carl telling him that he'll talk to him when he has the money.

After killing a highway patrol officer (James Gaulke) and a couple of witnesses on their way to their hideout and later stopping at a motel to have sex with a couple of hookers (Larissa Kokernot and Melissa Peterman),Carl and Gaesar arrive at their place. Meanwhile, the murders that Carl and Gaesar have done is investigated by a 7-month pregnant police chief named Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) as she is joined by her partner Lou (Bruce Bohne). Hearing about a car with unmarked license plates and believing they were from out of town, Marge leads the investigation while getting help from her husband Norman (John Carroll Lynch) to bring her food. After interrogating the hookers and talking to another officer named Olsen (Cliff Rakerd), Marge goes to Minneapolis to meet with Jerry about the stolen car which he claims to know nothing about as he later talks to Carl who decides to go to Minneapolis to get the money.

While staying at Minneapolis, Marge meets up with an old school friend in Mike Yanagita (Steve Parks) as the two reminisce old times as Mike is going through hard times. Also in Minneapolis is Carl who goes out with a hooker (Michelle Hutchison) at a Jose Felicano concert where things later go bad because of Shep who finds himself in trouble. Carl calls Jerry for the money drop as Wade decides to get involved while Marge's meeting with Mike has her raising more suspicions towards Jerry. Notably as things come to ahead for this simple yet well-meaning police chief who tries to come to terms with everything that has happened.

In a lot of ways, Fargo has all the elements that is needed in a true story from the Coen Brothers. Take the noir-style of Blood Simple, the eccentric comedy of Raising Arizona, the fast-talking dialogue and violent tone of Miller's Crossing, and the intense emotions of Barton Fink all into a mix and you get Fargo. The genius of the film really belongs to the Coen Brothers by creating a black comedy that is filled with a lot of intensity in terms of its emotions and situations along with morals. The film has a structure where it builds up to what is going to happen but it's really about is the results. The first act is Lundegaard talking to Carl and Gaear about the kidnaping and the act of it. The second act is Marge investigating the murders and what is going. Then there's the third act where everything comes to place in a classic film-noir set-up but its aftermath is filled with not just tragedy but a situation where no one really gains anything as Marge tries to come to terms in what it's all about.

The way the film is written is a genius into what Joel and Ethan Coen can do since they create situations that are very dark or areas where it can be pretty funny. The dialogue of the film definitely feels authentic since they're setting it in North-Midwest where everything has a bit of Scandinavian dialogue with people saying Ja. The area gives the film an eccentric feel with some great humor, even in the strangest of situations. The film's violence in comparison to other films at that time is a lot more brutal. Though not as bloody as the films of Quentin Tarantino or his imitators but the action and level of it is enough to make people feel queasy. It's a part of the genius in the Coen Brothers in terms of what they can do as storytellers.

Joel Coen's directing also leans into that classic film-noir style of slow close-ups and dark atmosphere, especially when the film reaches a dramatic intensity. The film also has that genre of caper films, which was becoming very popular at that time with Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket, but it's done in a dark, comic way that only the Coen Brothers could do. A lot of the film's comedy feels natural and even in their improvisation approach. Everything that Joel and Ethan do in the directing is filled with not just great camera angles shots but scenes that tells something, even through smaller characters as they fill in each clue to a mystery and what happens as the suspense builds up into a classic crescendo. It's truly a remarkable form of what directing is.

If Joel does most of the directing and Ethan does a lot in the producing situation, then there's their approach to editing in their alias of Roderick Jaynes. With Ethan's wife Tricia Cooke helping along, the film has a nice, leisurely paced feel with a very idiosyncratic structure in its 100-minute running time. The way the film is cut with a nice, stylized approach to editing, especially in moments where they show things that are happening but doesn't necessarily show the action itself. Helping Joel Coen in capturing his dark vision is their longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins who creates a wonderful epic, noir-style of photography from the night-time scene of Brainerd with Paul Bunyan statue to the snowy scenes where the snow serves as the light. Deakins' photography is brilliant in its mood and how it gives the film a sense of doom and relief.

The film's production designer Rich Heinrichs brings in a natural look to the homes and offices of the film's interior while Coen Brothers' longtime costume designer Mary Zophres brings in some realistic design to the winter clothing of the characters. Longtime sound editor Skip Lievsay and sound designer Allan Byer help create the dark, atmosphere of the film's exterior scenes with its natural sound of snow and winds. Finally, there's the dramatic, epic score of longtime Coen Bros. composer Carter Burwell who brings in huge arrangements and orchestral tones for the film's noir style and a wave of melancholia in the film's more dramatic moments as Burwell brings in one of his best film scores.

Finally, there's the film's cast that includes several quirky small characters whether its regular folk or anyone of the smaller supporting characters in the film. Everyone in that movie stands out with great, funny performances from Larry Brandenburg as Wade's business partner, Larissa Kokernot and Melissa Peterman as the hookers who are interrogated, Bruce Bohne and Cliff Rakerd as Marge's fellow policemen, and Tony Denman as Jerry's anguished son. Steve Parks gives a funny yet eerie performance as an old school friend of Marge who is hurt by loneliness that really is a much bigger role than it is in terms of the film's story. John Carroll Lynch is also excellent in his role as the loyal, loving Norm who does everything to take care fo his pregnant wife. Steve Reevis also stands out as the big Indian Shep who goes nuts when a caper plan falls apart.

Kristin Rudrud is wonderfully funny in her role as the victim with her physical comedic performance while in other scenes, she presents herself in a nice, innocent way as a loving mother/wife. Harve Presnell is also great in his role as the angry, opportunistic Wade who is kind of a bully but for all the right reasons as he desperately tries to save his daughter but is not merely a good man since he too is filled with greed. Peter Stormare is amazing as the quiet but chilling Gaear where when he's quiet, he's really dangerous while giving out some hilarious moments in doing nothing as Stormare shines in one of his greatest performances. Steve Buscemi is also funny as the talkative, opportunistic Carl Showalter with his role in being the leader of the plans while wanting to have a good time only to get into some trouble. Buscemi brings in the same kind of humor and attitude to the performance we often expect from him.

William H. Macy gives a classic performance in one of his finest of loser roles that he's been known for playing. In Jerry Lundegaard, he plays a desperate loser who often gets bullied on a bit at work and from his father-in-law and mindlessly plans a prank. Macy brings in a lot of torment, insecurity, and humor into the character while knowing that he's not a good guy but he's not a bad guy either. Macy gives an amazing performance as a fool who loses sight of what's important.

Frances McDormand delivers an amazing performance as the smart, simple-hearted woman Marge Gunderson. McDormand shines above all others with her funny dialogue and accent while reminding her fellow cops about their abilities while not trying to be better than them. McDormand brings in a lot of humor to her dialogue while as a cop, doing the right thing and slowly finding clues without second-guessing. There's an intelligence and heart that lies in Marge Gunderson and McDormand hits all the right notes, especially when she meets an old friend that gives her a clue into what is going on. In the scene where Marge looks around Jerry's desk, McDormand gives her best moments where she looks around trying to figure something out as she confirms her suspicions. When the film nears its ending, McDormand reminds the film's audience and a character about the sins that is committed in the film. It's truly remarkable in a performance that everyone can relate to.

Fans of the Coen Brothers will no doubt regard Fargo as one of their best films led by a great performance from Frances McDormand and wonderful supporting performances from William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare. Anyone who has a knack for caper films, black comedy, and noir-touches will love this film immediately. This is truly one of the greatest films of the 1990s and also, of all-time. Anyone who loves the early Coen Brothers films will indeed find a lot of references and techniques that is brought to a film so highly original as Fargo did.

© thevoid99 2012


Chip Lary said...

For what it's worth: I've read that it's not actually based on any real events; that the Coens just put that in there to mess with people a little.

I liked this film quite a bit, but I can remember seeing one critic (Gene Siskel) go on and on about two things: the accents and the fact that the pregnant sheriff doesn't give birth. That's what made it a good movie to him. I just remember thinking, "Really? That's what makes a good movie to a major movie critic?"

thevoid99 said...

Yeah, I figured it wasn't true but that is what Joel & Ethan Coen do at its best.

I should note that Gene Siskel's favorite movie is Saturday Night Fever though he was a great film critic. He is definitely missed.