The next couple weeks here on Cinematic Century are going to be pretty rough, veritable bloodbaths of competitions to find my favorite film of any given year. Things are really going to start popping off, just giving me incredibly difficult decisions. But, not 1996. I really didn’t have any choice other than the one I went with for 1996. As you can see, we’re taking another trip into the weird and wacky world of the Coen Brothers with their seminal film Fargo. There was no doubt in my mind that that wonderful film would be my pick for 1996, even though there are other great movies from that year. You know, like Space Jam? Well, actually, 1996 wasn’t that great a year. A lot of movies that I either have a lot of nostalgia for that are covering up massive flaws, or movies that I just kind of don’t connect with that much. I’ve never been a Scream guy, and probably never will. The Mission: Impossible movies have only really started to get on my wavelength in recent years, and that initial movie just doesn’t really do much for me. The Birdcage is pretty fun, although I’m sure it doesn’t exactly hold up to modern scrutiny. I do appreciate Hard Eight, but other than being Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film it primarily just shows the potential that he would reach almost immediately afterwards. I have never been a Wes Anderson person, and Bottle Rocket just sets up the never-ending churn of films that people think are genius, and that I just don’t connect with even slightly. I have talked about my affection for Tim Burton’s insane Mars Attacks, but not to the point where it could dare compete with Fargo. Because while I certainly love the films from the Coen’s before Fargo, it was the film that crystallized what they did, and why I love them.
The background of Fargo is actually fairly mysterious. Famously, the film opens up with a title card saying that it’s based on a true story, but that a majority of the information has been changed. And, also famously, the Coen’s seem to get quite a bit of enjoyment screwing around with people on whether or not that is at all true. In theory there were murders that somewhat parallel the events of the film that happened in the general area, but they have always been incredibly cagey whether or not it actually is based on anything, or was just a gag to themselves. But, regardless, they worked up the script for this movie, seemingly just to show off the distinctive and strange regional accents that everyone in the Fargo area would be using. They brought together a fairly regular crew of actors featuring some of their standbys while also bringing in some new folks who would end up joining their regular crew, heading to the real frozen North of the United States. The only problem was, the actual towns that they were seeking to film on location in didn’t get the amount of snowfall that they needed for the film, requiring them to go even further North to fake it all. But, regardless, they got their film made, and it was pretty quickly recognized as the masterpiece that it is. It received quite a bit of critical love and accolades, being widely considered as one of the finest films of 1996. It did quite well financially, and quickly became a major cultural touchstone, one of the films that really rocketed the Coen Brothers to the position in American cinema that they’d remain in for the forseeable future. And, that stature helped spur on the eventual television show loosely based on the film, and even instigated a flood of people arriving in the Fargo area looking for the supposed treasure that this “true” story featured. And, it’s easy to see why this movie hit so hard. Because it’s a masterpiece.
The film begins with a struggling car salesman named Jerry Lundegaard. He works for a dealership owned by his powerful and rich father-in-law, Wade Gustafson, and is desperate to make a fortune of his own. He plans on getting a dubious loan that he’s using non-existent cars to use as collateral, but needs quite a bit of money to get him across the finish line. And, after taking the advice of a mechanic at his dealership, Jerry leaves Minneapolis and heads to Fargo, North Dakota to meet with two criminals, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud, who concoct a plan to kidnap Jerry’s wife Jean. They then plan to have Wade pay the ransom, and Jerry will split it with the criminals. Jerry feels really worried about this whole deal, but pushes it along while also trying to get Wade interested in his scheme through more legal methods. And, unfortunately, he does get Wade interested, but to the point where he’s going to move ahead on the real estate deal without Jerry, cutting him out of the process. Jerry is terrified that everything has fallen apart at this point, and things get worse when he realizes it’s too late to stop Carl and Gaear.
The two men managed to break into Jerry’s home and kidnap Jean, heading back to their remote cabin in Moose Lake, Minnesota. However, while travelling near the small town of Brainerd, the men are pulled over by a state trooper, and things escalate to the point that Gaear kills the officer, in full view of two witnesses. So, they kill these two as well, and continue on to Moose Lake, leaving a hell of a crime scene. And, the next day that crime scene becomes the problem of the pregnant Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson, who begins investigating. Using some information from the slain trooper’s logbook, she realizes that the car had dealer plates, since it came from Jerry’s dealership, and she’s put on the path to begin tracking them down. She eventually finds her way to Jerry himself, after going through the mechanic that gave Jerry the idea, and he becomes terrified that the law has figured out his scam. So, he decides to escalate things and begins acting as a go-between for the kidnappers and Wade, telling Wade that they now want a million dollars instead of the previously stated $80,000.
And, weirdly, Wade agrees. But, he also insists on making the delivery himself. So, Wade arrives to meet with Carl, who has had non-stop issues since kidnapping Jean, and things quickly escalate to the point that Carl kills Wade and steals the money. He had no idea that it would contain a million dollar though, and ends up hiding a majority of the money off the highway so that he can feign ignorance with Gaear. Carl then returns to Moose Lake, only to find that the incredibly unstable Gaear has killed Jean. Carl tries to just pay off Gaear and return to his hidden fortune, but the two end up getting in a fight over who owns the car Jerry gave them, ending with Carl murdering Gaear and putting his body through a wood-chipper. Meanwhile, Marge has still been investigating Jerry, causing him to completely break down and flee, justifying some state police to begin tracking him down. And, finishing off one final tip about some strange people holed up in a cabin, Marge ends up discovering Gaear dealing with Carl’s body, and arrests him, bringing the whole sordid thing to a close. Marge then returns home, and gets ready to have her baby with her husband.
This movie is just such an utter delight. I may not be right, but I’m fairly certain that this was the first Coen Brothers movie I ever saw, more than likely around the time it would have hit cable, and it instantly hooked me to their style. I love the Coen Brothers, and their fixation of looking at the absurdity of crime and those who commit crimes, taking the mystery and awe out of these stories and just showing them to be a bunch of numbskulls running around. And, this movie is one of the best distillations of that concept. The Coen Brothers are able to juggle terrible crime horror and slapstick comedy in a way that very few are able to accomplish, and it’s frankly staggering. The fact that this movie features a climax where a man feeds his partner into a woochipper, and it’s still considered a comedy, is a remarkable feat. Everything about this film works, and primarily because everyone is as earnest as possible. William H Macy is stunning as Jerry Lunndegaard, a truly reprehensible person who really thinks that he’s in the right the entire time, keeping an air of respectability and good manners while doing the absolute worst things. Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare are amazing as the weird killers, basically creating an Odd Couple dynamic that is full of joke potential, in between them murdering people. And, rightfully, the show is absolutely stolen by Frances McDormand who is just perfect as marge Gunderson. An incredibly capable and intelligent character who is solving the craziest crime of her career while incredibly pregnant, and just keeping her life going. McDormand really is one of the finest living actresses, and I feel like we tend to forget just how special this performance is, and how it helps make this film what it is, and makes it work the way it does.
Crime certainly is something that the movies are fascinated with. I’ve talked about quite a few crime movies over the course of this Cinematic Century project, and it’s easy to see why. We love watching stories about people being bad. By and large, the average person agrees to the social contract, and doesn’t deviate from society, so it’s cathartic to watch crime movies and both see the allure, and the confirmation that it almost always leads to punishment, justifying out decision to be good people. But, by and large, these crime movies tend to take place in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Like a majority of movies. We like to think that crime is something that happens in the big cities, something that couldn’t possibly happen where we all live. And yet, the thing that I love so much about Fargo is the idea that no matter where you are, no matter how nice and sweet your little town is, there’s probably a bunch of numbskulls trying to get ahead in life, and screwing someone else over to do so. Anyone is capable of starring in their own little crime story, even the nice kind people of Brainerd, Minnesota. And, not only that, there’s still some brave detective willing to save the day. Marge Gunderson isn’t exactly the standard type of hero we get in these sorts of crime stories, and it’s one of the reasons that I love her performance so much. And that’s such a fun idea, which the Coen’s are so great at delivering. Everywhere’s the same, and the one true unifier of American society is that people are out there being idiots and planning dumb schemes, and hopefully there are people as generally good as Marge Gunderson to take care of us.
Fargo was written by Joel and Ethan Coen, directed by Joel Coen, and released by Gramercy Pictures, 1996.
Categories: Cinematic Century