“A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere” and co-directors/writers Joel and Ethan Coen prove it with Fargo (1996) a diabolically wicked black satire that – despite the film’s opening screen credit – is NOT based on any actual Minnesota kidnapping and/or murder case. Fargo is deceptively light-hearted; the Coen’s screenplay stippling the Minnesota dialect (“You betcha!”) over this essentially gruesome kidnapping for hire. You can get away with an awful lot of blood and guts if you bandage the open wounds in glib repartee and tongue-in-cheek references to genuine human stupidity. Fargo certainly has a lot of that to recommend it; whether its’ car salesman, Jerry Lunigaard’s (William H. Macy) nervous inability to grasp the severity of this plot he’s set into motion out of necessity, until it’s much too late to turn back (obtusely cajoling reluctant customers – riotously brought to life in cameo by Gary Houston and Sally Wingert – into buying an unnecessary and expensive ‘true coat’ to protect the undercarriage of their new cars), or Carl Showalter’s (Steve Buscemi) frantic attempt to shore up his gaping neck wound after his ransom exchange goes horribly awry; Fargo is a movie that illustrates the human element at its worst. Frequently, it also celebrates the ineptitude of our species.
That said, Fargo is just about the most enjoyable grand guignol, masquerading as English farce with a uniquely American twist, ever made. The Coens certainly know their craft; mixing the light with the heavy, the sacred into the profane, the intellectual riding shotgun with adolescent-stunted crotch-grabbing humor: all of it evolving into one deliciously cohesive and thoroughly nourishing gumbo of imploding human bing-bang. “A lot” does indeed “happen in the middle of ‘this’ nowhere” - the brainless in Brainerd falling prey to a pair of hit men from ‘the big city’ who couldn’t even find their own behinds with a compass and their two hands. The joy in Fargo is largely derived from its superb cast; also from the singsong regional dialect, part Nordic/part Swedish; mastered with the aid of coaches Liz Himelstein and Larissa Kokernot (the latter making her own cameo appearance in the film). Fidelity to either ‘a true story’ or the Minnesota dialect in particular wasn’t necessarily the Coens’ strong suit; Joel Coen later admitting the North Dakotan/Minnesotan accent was grossly exaggerated and largely inaccurate. Also, while the movie’s disclaimer claims to ground it in a retelling of a ‘true story,’ the actual script is basically a fabrication with only the most superficial adherence to elements of multiple crime stories expertly spun by the Coens’ fertile creative minds.
Fargo’s narrative tapestry is hypnotic and compelling. The Coens are not only superior technicians, but bravely experimental herein; perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in the scene where an inquisitive – and very pregnant - Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand in her Oscar-winning role) takes a much needed break from her investigation and is courted by an old high school friend, Mike Yanagita (Steve Parks) who fails to register Marge’s pregnancy before making a thoroughly out of touch play for her affections. The scene is totally superfluous, a complete departure in both mood and, in fact, plot thus far. And yet, as, they say, the scene works – magnificently; this sweaty-palmed would-be Lochinvar shot down in his amorous attempts after Marge regroups from her initial shock and disbelief.
Without question, Fargo is blessed with a superb cast. Everyone is pulling their share of the load; even the most diminutive parts memorably fleshed out with attention-grabbing performances. Take the scene with Larissa Kokernot and Melissa Peterman as a prime example; cast as a pair of college-dropout hookers, who take our hit men to bed after a night of carousing at the Blue Ox Motel. Asked by Marge if the picked-up pair had any distinguishing features that might aid her in her search, Peterman’s reply “He was not circumcised” is both riotous and ridiculous all at once. Actually, I don’t know what’s funnier – the line or, as uttered with blank stare by Peterman; the proverbial doe caught in the headlights, head bobbing as she rocks in her chair, unruffled by the fact she has just bedded a convicted felon wanted for kidnapping and murder. Cameos like these are an awful lot of fun to watch. But it’s the precision of the central performances that continually stagger and impress, even upon multiple viewings.
There’s nothing to touch Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson; a deft police woman plagued by reoccurring bouts of morning sickness, but affectionately saddled with a good man, Norm (John Carroll Lynch) whose sole ambition it is to have one of his naturalist artist’s renderings win a contest and become the image on a three cent stamp. McDormand peppers this role with variants of the tough cookie – a kinder/gentler Cagney or Lacey, out to get her man and solve a crime that has baffled the small community of Brainerd. McDormand gives us Marge as, arguably, the one bright bulb in this otherwise ‘fool’s paradise’ populated by genuine morons.
William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi operate on an entirely different level. Macy is a very cerebral actor, intellectualizing the abject fear and mounting self-loathing of this very ‘small’ man whose initial frustrations and growing desperation has inadvertently resulted in the unexpected death of six people – including his beloved wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd). Nothing Lundegaard does turns out right. So why did he think his plot to kidnap his own wife for some ransom money would be any different? Ah, that’s Jerry’s character flaw and Macy plays it to the hilt, maintaining a genuine respect and sadness for this poor idiot who has inadvertently become the architect of his own folly. His father-in-law, Wade Gustafson’s (Harve Presnell) flaw is stubborn pride; just a curmudgeonly old fool who thinks he can manage these career criminals and a son-in-law he doesn’t much care for, while manipulating his own daughter’s affections by exposing Jerry as a screw up.
In some ways, Steven Buscemi’s Carl Showalter (one half of the hit squad that includes the near catatonic psycho, Gaear Grimsrud, played to perfection by Peter Stormare) is the ideal foil for Macy’s Lundegaard. They’re really two halves extracted from the same womb; neither able to manage their affairs without severe repercussions inflicted upon the world around them; each paying the supreme price for their inability to grasp the severity of their actions; Carl - by winding up on the short end of a very bloody wood chipper, and Lundegaard - destined to spend the rest of his waking life behind bars on death row. Buscemi’s deviant pug is more flamboyant. It lacks Macy’s art of subtlety, perhaps. But Buscemi makes up for this with beady-eyed effervescence and an unquestionable charm unlike any other actor of his ilk. Ultimately, Fargo is an American tragedy, masquerading under the disguise of a very black comedy. None of the characters get what they want, but most get what they deserve.
Our story begins in the debilitating winter of 1987, in the remote town of Brainerd, Minneapolis. Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is desperate for money. It seems Jerry’s fudged the V.I.N. numbers on a fraudulent insurance claim for the theft of a car from the dealership, planning to pocket the money. Time to fess up, pay up or go to jail. What to do? Well, if you’re functioning under Jerry’s self-delusion, and with his limited brain power, you just might hire a pair of career criminals to kidnap your wife and hold her for a ransom that only her wealthy father can pay. It all seems plausible. And Wade would pay it too. Only something about Jerry’s insistence that he pays it to the kidnappers alone, and, with no involvement from the police, doesn’t pass the smell test.
So, Jerry approaches ex-convict Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis) – one of the dealership’s garage mechanics – with the prospect of finding a pair of brutes to carry out his plan. Shep puts Jerry in touch with Carl and Gaear; two goons from Fargo, North Dakota who agree to the plan in trade of a brand new Oldsmobile Cuttlass Ciera and a fifty-fifty split of the proposed $80,000 ransom. Actually, Jerry’s plan is to ask Wade for a cool million in exchange for Jean’s return, pocketing the bulk of it himself to pay off his spurious and mounting debts. It’s all perfect…or rather, isn’t, but just seems that way. After Jean is taken by Carl and Gaear to a remote cabin (actually, she knocks herself unconscious by tripping down a flight of stairs wrapped in a translucent shower curtain), she generally makes a damn nuisance of herself, eventually incurring Gaear’s wrath.
The tragedy is Jerry would have never considered such a preposterous scheme, if only Wade had been more agreeable in lending him the money for a proposed real estate deal. The deal is good – too good, in fact, and Wade claim jumps, buying up the property and intent only to pay Jerry his meager finder’s fee. It’s just another way Wade belittles and humiliates Jerry who is, at best, struggling to validate his manhood by becoming the successful businessman he knows his wife would likely prefer. Meanwhile, the caper turns homicidal after Carl and Gaear, with Jean bound and stuffed in the trunk of their car, are pulled over by a state trooper for a minor license plate infraction, just outside of Brainerd. Carl’s first plan is to bribe the trooper to let them go before anyone is the wiser. Instead, he only succeeds in making the trooper more suspicious and, in a moment of calculated violence, Gaear shoots the officer dead. The body count exponentially rises, as a young couple passing by in their car observes Carl dragging the lifeless trooper’s body across the snowy road. An unrepentant Gaear makes chase and systematically hunts the pair down, murdering them both.
The following morning, Marge Gunderson begins her investigation into these gruesome homicides. Piecing together the chain of events, Marge interviews a pair of clueless prostitutes who serviced Carl and Gaear two nights prior at a seedy truck stop. Informed that Carl made a single phone call to one Shep Proudfoot, Marge’s next stop is the dealership where she encounters defiance and noncompliance from both Shep and Jerry – the latter revealing far too much about his involvement via his level of frustration, but without ever saying a word. The ‘who dun it?’ narrative is momentarily interrupted when an old classmate, Mike Yanagita invites Marge to dinner. His feeble attempts at seduction – claiming horrible loneliness ever since his wife, Linda Cooksey (Marge’s old friend) died from leukemia – go nowhere fast. In the meantime, Carl has grown impatient with their arrangement. After all, Jean is getting on everyone’s nerves. So, he telephones Jerry, who contacts Wade and his associate/accountant, Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg) about arranging the ransom money.
Jerry insists the kidnappers will only deal in the exchange with him. Wade initially agrees to this condition, but later questions it and ultimately changes his mind. In response to his interrogation, Shep finds Carl and beats him to a pulp, perhaps believing Carl has been the stoolie who could send him back to prison. Carl orders Jerry to come up with the ransom money inside a parking garage. Instead Wade, who has been eavesdropping on their conversation, elects to deliver the ransom. Enraged by the switch in their plans, Carl kills Wade, though not before Wade manages to fire off a round that clips Carl in the neck. Bleeding profusely, Carl makes off with the money, leaving Jerry to stuff Wade’s body in the trunk of his car. Discovering the million dollar loot in Wade’s briefcase, Carl removes the agreed upon $80,000, burying the rest by the side of the highway before returning to the hideout where he and Gaear have taken Jean, only to discover that Gaear has since murdered Jean with an ax.
In the meantime, Marge learns from a fellow detective that Mike has lied to her about his marriage to Linda. Mike, in fact, has psychiatric issues and has been stalking Linda. This revelation dovetails into Marge’s investigation of Jerry, who she also believes is being dishonest in his disclosures to her. Armed with a new resolve to unearth the truth, Marge questions Jerry once more. When he becomes suspiciously nervous and uncooperative, Marge asks to speak to Wade. Jerry angrily storms out of his office, claiming he is going to the lot to check the status of the missing car. Instead, he flees the dealership, prompting Marge to issue an APB for his arrest. Following up on a tip from a local bartender, Marge find the missing Oldsmobile at a remote cabin near Moose Lake and catches Gaear attempting to feed the last bit of Carl’s body – his leg and foot – into a wood chipper. Gaear races across the frozen lake to escape capture, but is wounded by Marge and taken into custody. On the car ride home, Marge attempts to understand the carnage, but Gaear is unresponsive, blankly staring out the window as the scenery rolls by.
A short while later Jerry is arrested by state police inside a motel in Bismarck, North Dakota; taken away kicking and screaming – the final mad ranting of a man who has truly lost his way. That evening, Marge cuddles up next to Norm who is disappointed his artist’s rendering was not chosen for the most popular denomination of stamp. Marge reminds Norm that being honored on the three cent stamp is just as worthy, perhaps even more. After all, every time postage rates go up, people will need to buy the three cent with Norm’s image to augment the difference in postage. Comforted by this thought, Norm embraces Marge, she declaring that in two weeks she will likely give birth to their child.
Fargo is a disturbingly original deviation from the traditions of the murder/crime story; its train-wreck of a plot enlightened by some superbly written, morality-based comedy. The plot is threadbare and at some basic level, predictable, right down to its’ ‘crime must pay’ finale. What sets Fargo apart from virtually all other attempts in the same vein is its superb characterizations; each one a magnificent comic foil. The Coen Brothers certainly knows their way around this material; pacing their action and comedy with a sustained reverence for the absurdity of it all. And Frances McDormand’s Marge is a winning – if unlikely movie heroine. We all want to ride shotgun with her, making her detection of this inscrutable series of grotesque murders all the more richly rewarding. In some ways, Fargo tips its hat to the glib and enterprising buffoonery in Pulp Fiction (1994); eschewing Quentin Tarantino’s nonlinear timeline and simply going for the solid story approach, told straight forward and expertly played by its principal cast. In the decades that have since passed, no one – not even the Coens – have attempted to duplicate Fargo’s success. Perhaps, no one can. The film is in a class apart and likely to remain an influential piece of American cinema for many long years yet to come.
MGM/Fox Home Video’s reissued Blu-Ray rectifies a goodly number of sins committed on their first trip to the well back in 2006. For starters, this is a brand new rescan of the original camera negative and the results speak for themselves. Here is a 1080p image that positively glows with reference quality clarity and deep, fully saturated colors. Contrast has been superbly rendered this time around. The original Blu-ray suffered from weaker than expected blacks and whites that looked just dirty and off. Also, on the original disc the color temperature favored a cooler palette that bode well with the frigid outdoors, but made virtually all the flesh tones seem vaguely reminiscent of suffering from the embalmer’s fluid. This new disc features warmer hues, and, if memory serves, seems more to satisfy the way I recall Fargo looking in the theater.
Better still, grain has been accurately reproduced and without any age-related artifacts and/or digital anomalies. The image is smooth but exceptionally sharp. Fargo, at long last, looks phenomenal on Blu-ray. The DTS 5.1 exhibits marginal improvements over the previously issued Blu-ray; perhaps because there wasn’t all that much wrong with the audio before. Extras are all direct imports from the aforementioned previous release and include the documentary, Minnesota Nice. Bottom line: The good people at Fox have outdone themselves this time around. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)