Screenplay : Joel and Ethan Coen
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Frances McDormand (Marge Gunderson), William H. Macy (Jerry Lundegard), Steven Buscemi (Carl Showalter), Peter Stormare (Gaear Grimsrud), Harve Presnell (Wade Gustafson)
Marge Gunderson, the very pregnant police chief from Brainerd, Minnesota is the heart and soul of "Fargo." Without her, this little bit of snow-driven film noir might have been an ugly, mean-spirited movie. But with her at its core, it's the best film of 1996.
Brought to life with wonderful affection by Frances McDormand, Marge is such a fundamentally decent person that you have to wonder how she manages to get mixed up in all "malfeasance" (as she puts it) going on in this movie. Her affable personality is put to the test in scene after scene, making her one of the best written and most fully realized film characters in years.
Take for instance, the scene when her husband, a mild-mannered aspiring painter named Norm, laments the fact that his mallard painting placed in a contest, but will only be printed on a three-cent stamp. "No one much uses the three-cent stamp," he says. "Sure they do," she replies. "When they raise the price of stamps, people need the little ones when they're stuck with a bunch of the old ones."
Or, near the end of the film when she has one of the bad guys in the back seat of her police car, she laments, "Three people dead. And all for what? A little money. Don't you know there's more to life than a little bit of money?" The fact that she can't comprehend the acts that unfold in "Fargo" speaks volumes about her character. The difference between her and the criminal in the back seat is just that -- she does know the difference and a lot more.
On the other end of the character spectrum is Jerry Lundegard, brought to life by William H. Macy with gusto matching McDormand's performance. Lundegard is the root of all that goes wrong in Fargo, a tiny town in North Dakota. He is an ordinary car salesman who happens to need a lot of money to pay off some debts. He enlists the help of Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stomare) in a plot to kidnap his wife, and then use his rich father-in-law's (Harve Presnell) money to pay the ransom. The two kidnappers get half for the work, and Jerry pockets the rest to pay off his debt. "It's real sound," he says. Yeah, right. We know better.
"Fargo" is the latest offering from Joel and Ethan Coen, two of the most original filmmakers working today. It's the kind of movie where if something can go wrong, it will go wrong, and it feels very similar to their first outing in 1984, "Blood Simple."
After the kidnappers have Jerry's wife in hand, they end up shooting a highway patrolman and two people who have the bad luck of driving by while Buscemi is dragging the dead body off the road. From there, the once "sound" plan spirals downward into complete disaster. Everything Jerry tries backfires on him, and when he tries to call the whole thing off, he can't get in touch with the kidnappers because he doesn't have their phone number! One of the joys of watching the film is the conflicting emotions that rise whenever Jerry is on screen. Half of you is thinking, "What a weasel. He deserves everything he's getting," while the other half is thinking, "Poor guy. He's so pathetic and he can't do anything right."
Along with McDormand and Macy, the performance by Buscemi and Stomare are also top-notch. Buscemi has made a career out of playing slimeballs, and this performance is one of his best. He inhabits the role like an old glove -- chatty, loud, conniving, and always moving closer to the edge of hysterics. Stomare stands in stark contrast -- quite, seemingly reserved until he explodes into sudden bursts of violence. They make a completely unworkable pair, and it's no wonder nothing goes right for them.
All of this takes place against the white-washed backdrop of the Midwest. This is where the Coen Brothers (Joel directing, Ethan producing, both writing) grew up, and they know it like the backs of their hands. The Scandinavian regional dialect ("Yah, yah, real good then") is perfectly maintained, and it gives additional humor to every scene.
The cinematography by Roger Deakins ("The Shawshank Redemption") captures the bleak, frozen Midwest with unerring accuracy. It has a feel for time and place that are essential to its success. The film opens with a great shot of a car coming up the highway, and you can't tell where the horizon turns into the sky, or where the road is, for that matter. Everything is bleach white, and it gives an almost claustrophobic feel that works in perfect unison with the story.
"Fargo" is quite simply filmmaking at its finest. Parts of it feel old and comfortable, but just when you start to relax, the Coens throw in a new surprise. The Coens understand that getting there is half the fun, and "Fargo" takes its time getting to its grisly conclusion. It even includes scenes that aren't necessary to the plot machine, but are just funny and telling. Any movie that can do that and get away with it as efficiently as "Fargo" does is something to treasure.
©1997 James Kendrick