Friday Film Focus: Fargo

Films like Fargo are why I love movies.

Watching it is to experience tremendous delight as you begin to realize the filmmakers have taken incredible risks in creating a movie categorized as bold and unapologetically original. Set in a small town against the frigid winter landscape of North Dakota and Minnesota, directors Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men) rotate the film’s narrative through violence, suspense, comedy and of course, satire.

The film opens up in what seems like a vast and endless snowfall over the town of Fargo, ND. The Coen Brothers have created an almost eerie background for this mundane crime story. The film starts innocently as we are introduced to the first character in the show, Jerry Lundegaard (played by the talented William H Macy). Jerry is a terminally anxious, smiley Minneapolis car salesman who desperately needs money for a business deal. A parking lot scheme has been concocted in order to hopefully save him from bankruptcy. Lundegaard works for his very rich father-in-law. The man owns the car agency, and doesn’t give his son-in-law the time of day. Having dismally failed to raise enough money to pay off his debts, Lundegaard decides to engineer a kidnapping of his dutiful wife (Kristin Rudrud). The plan is to then extort a million-dollar ransom from his father-in-law.

Lundegaard is an inordinately ordinary man. He's in way over his head upon the hiring of Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) -- two lowlife thugs tasked with taking care of the kidnapping. Showalter is mousy, nervous, and far too talkative. Grimsrud is sullen and rarely speaks. These two snakes are colorfully incompetent, and even have trouble snatching the poor woman without half-injuring or killing her. As they make their way to the next location, they are stopped by a cop for not having correct license plates. Becoming suspicious of the two, the cop asks Showalter to step out of the car -- which causes Grimsrud to unexpectedly kill him and two passing tourists out of panic. From that point on, the course just gets bloodier and bloodier. The bodies are found the following morning beside the highway between Minneapolis and Brainerd, Minn. Brainerd’s police chief is a woman named Marge Gunderson (the remarkable Frances McDormand).

She talks in a thick Canadian-American-Scandinavian accent with borderline folksy lines like “You betcha!” and “You’re dern tootin.’” She’s cheerful and polite...and very pregnant. Gunderson is a gifted detective -- having reconstructed the crime soon after visiting the murder site. The performance of McDormand is masterful. She humanizes the film, and is able to bring to life the Coens' mix of comedy and horror. You’re never certain whether to laugh at the characters or to take them seriously. It’s an uneasy ride, but it helps in giving the film its cutting edge. Even when events turn badly, the Coens' keep their attention to detail and let the mood of the film remain impossibly light.

Fargo is a crime tale ending with somebody’s foot sticking out of a wood chipper. All throughout the film, the directors are simply evoking a story through the drabness of Midwestern life. As Marge patiently starts pursuing Jerry, the audience watches in morbid fascination as the net tightens for this inept sap. Macy creates the unbearable anguish of a man whose brain is scrambled with guilt and the crazy illusion that he can somehow still pull this off. Its fascinating watching him try to squirm out of every lie as his plan starts unfolding at the seams. The smaller roles in this film seem bigger due to the excellent writing by both Coen brothers. Rudrud has a few scenes in the film, but creates a lasting character as the oblivious wife to Jerry. Harve Presnall as the father-in-law is the typical self-made millionaire who refuses to let Jerry take the ransom money to Showalter and Grimsrud. He instead wants to do it himself.

There are few films in history that have created such an impact as Fargo. The story is unique, the acting is superb, and the directing is classically Coen-esque. It was beautifully shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins in its wintry remote terrain alongside the excellent music from Patrick Doyle. Fargo went on to receive seven Academy Award nominations -- with wins for Best Actress (McDormand) and Best Original Screenplay. I have no doubts that this film was based on actual events -- especially since the Coen brothers have the capability of elevating reality into a masterful illusion filled with human comedy. What they have created with Fargo is a film strikingly mature, uniquely entertaining, and satisfying on many levels.

Image Source: Tiziana Fabi/Stringer/Getty Images

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