Fargo follows a luckless car dealer named Jerry Lundegaard who hires two moronic criminals to kidnap his wife for ransom in hopes of getting the money from his wealthy father-in-law. When the kidnapping goes awry, it quickly escalates into a slew of murders that pregnant police chief, Marge Gunderson, is assigned to. This crime/drama/thriller is written, directed, and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen, AKA Roderick Jaynes (Pseudonym for the Coen brothers).
From the opening shot we get a sense of the sparsely populated small town feel. The long shots throughout the movie depict the story and setting perfectly. The Coen brothers do a good job of setting up the location for us and exploring American geography, like they do in some of their other films (Raising Arizona, Barton Fink). They start off by giving us a title that says we’re in Fargo then Minneapolis and even more so, they give us a look into the cold desolate winter. Right off the bat (five minutes in), we know exactly what this movie is about, immediately grabbing our interest.
The inciting incident is where things start to get interesting. The two criminals kidnap Jean Lundegaard after Jerry fails to contact them to call it off. The bathroom scene where Jean runs out of the shower with the curtain covering her is rather comical. The Coen brothers have a great way of injecting severely dark humor into their films and that’s because comedy is a part of life. It’s almost inevitable and almost always relatable.
The Coen brothers are known to throw in little details (most times comedic) into their films. In the beginning, we’re prompted with a title card that says it’s based on a true story, but is in fact not true. It is loosely based on real events that happened in Minnesota in 1987. The Coen brothers included this to aid them with things they couldn’t normally do with fiction, such as introduce the heroine 40 minutes in and use Mike Yanagita as a digression from the story. It is these little quirks that make the movie so engaging and original.
Although Fargo is technically not considered a comedy, it wears its dark humor on its sleeve. The movie expresses a lot of social satire. The Minnesotan accents were largely exaggerated to make these characters more amusing and add a touch of exaggerated comedy in the subtlest of ways. Marge Gunderson, a very pregnant police chief, almost single handedly solves the case and does so in a relaxed, chipper manner. This is routine for her. Jerry is a pathetic person, thinking he can pull off this ploy successfully. He’s a small, timid man in need of money; one who lacks every sense of morality. The Coen brothers describe Jerry as an “amateur criminal” and that’s exactly what he is. Just the way Jerry wails in the end when he’s arrested tells us what kind of man he is: a petty one.
The driving force that pushes this film is the fascinating mix of eccentric characters and how they amalgamate so well together. Each character has their quirks and disposition. I highly respect the decision to make Carl and Grimsrud inept culprits, going against the cliché of a bad guy being a manipulative genius. Even the most minor characters, the hookers, the irate customer and his wife, and even Mike Yanagita added worthy real estate to the movie.
The cinematography is visually intriguing and offers a good contrast between light and dark, space and claustrophobia. The snow that is so white and pure is juxtaposed with the blood spattered misdeeds of the characters trudging around in it (cough, cough, Woodchipper). Cinematographer Roger Deakins makes every moment on screen visually stimulating. He makes the scenes at home with the Lundegaard’s and the Gunderson’s, homey and quiet. It further brings us into the Midwest way of living.
Fargo was successful for a number of reasons. Firstly, the clever two-headed monster, the Coen brothers. They have natural strokes for storytelling and portraying what’s on paper to the big screen. I’ll be honest, the first time I saw this movie I believed it was based on a true story. It made the movie even more chilling and interesting. It makes the audience think to themselves, these people are real? They actually existed? Well, okay then. Crazy Midwesterners.
The flawed characters made this movie iconic. The irony of a heavily pregnant police chief almost easily solving the crime was brilliant. Now Marge Gunderson is a part of the 100 greatest movie characters of all time. The twist and turns this story took were genius, and not to mention the astonishing seven murders committed that were a part of this farcical world.
The Coen brothers took us on a cold journey into Fargo. Although the movie received plenty of criticism for the portrayal of Minnesotans, it was highly successful amongst the film community, nabbing two Oscars. Fargo was outstandingly original, winning best original screenplay filled with witty Minnesotan sayings such as “Yah” and “You betcha.” Being a Midwesterner, I could definitely relate to the snow and the small town feel if nothing more. It’s a lifestyle that is distinct and depicted well. The Coens’ snow-covered heist opera was a homespun murder story that goes to show you a lot can happen in the middle of nowhere.