Fargo (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Fargo takes the usual "caper gone wrong" storyline and applies a new twist. Based on a supposed series of "true events" from 1987 (a tongue-in-cheek claim made by a screen caption), the film examines what can happen when the police and criminals are equally dim-witted. The product of the Coen brothers' fertile (and twisted) minds, Fargo represents one of their least ambitious screenplays to date. Even so, the finished product still bears several of their unmistakable trademarks, including atypical humor and an unmistakable visual flair.

In many ways, Fargo is a departure for the Coens. Their previous films, especially Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, and The Hudsucker Proxy, were stylistic treats, filled with offbeat characters and amazing images. Fargo, on the other hand, is a more restrained picture. Perhaps because it is based on non-fictional events, the Coens decided to tone down their approach. Cinematographer (and long-time Coen collaborator) Roger Deakins relies primarily on traditional shots, and the characters are designed to be more "normal."

Fargo opens, appropriately enough, in Fargo, North Dakota, with a meeting between Minnesota car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) and two local thugs, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare). Jerry wants this pair to kidnap his wife, then ransom her for $80,000. While Jerry doesn't have that kind of money (in fact, he's strapped for cash), his father-in-law, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell), does. When the cash is paid out, Jerry is supposed to receive a 50% cut, as well as the safe return of his wife. That way, everyone except Wade comes out ahead. Unfortunately, with two such incompetent crooks, things are bound to go wrong, and Carl and Gaear are soon leaving a trail of dead bodies behind them. A local cop, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), is given the task of investigating the murders, and it's only with an amazing assist from fate that she ends up on the right track.

A current of absurd humor runs through Fargo. Even though the story is "based on true events" (not really), it's hard to take certain aspects of this movie seriously. Like David Lynch, the Coens are fascinated with what lurks behind the white picket fences of middle America. In Fargo, everyone falls into one of two categories -- the motivated (who are greedy, duplicitous, or homicidal) or the simpleminded (everyone else).

The problem with Fargo is that there aren't any substantial characters. Everyone, from the overwrought Jerry to the methodical Marge, is a pure caricature. None of these people are particularly interesting or sympathetic, and watching their exploits becomes a detached experience. By the end of the film, you're more interested in how the filmmakers choose to tie together loose ends than whether any particular individual lives or dies. In the past, the Coens have managed to create characters worth caring about; such is not the case here, and it diminishes Fargo's effectiveness.

Born and raised in Minnesota, the Coens know their home state, which accounts for their ability to reflect reality there (which is like unreality for most of the rest of the country). People say things like "You're darn tootin'", "aw, geez," and "what the heck". Knowing how strange the talk of Minnesotans will seem to the rest of the world, the Coens intentionally play it for deadpan comic effect.

It's easy to admire what the Coens are trying to do in Fargo, but more difficult to actually like the film. The absence of viable characters limits any dramatic impact, making this more of a laid back, lightly entertaining experience than a fully immersive one.

Fargo (United States, 1996)

Director: Joel Coen
Cast: William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand, Peter Stormare, Harve Presnell
Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Music: Carter Burwell
U.S. Distributor: Gramercy Pictures
Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 1996-03-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1