In the Coen Brother’s masterpiece Fargo we have a hilarious dark comedy, a tense big-city-crime, small-town-setting thriller, a chilling tragedy about the lack of control we have over our destiny, and a heartwarming reminder of the joys of normal life.
In small town Minnesota, a timid, somewhat dim car salesman named Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is in need of money for unknown reasons, and he is unable to ask the money from his wealthy wife Jean (Kristin Rudrud) or father-in-law/employer Wade (Harve Presnell) as they don’t know he needs it, and he is certain he wouldn’t get it anyway. In desperation he hires two criminals Karl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap Jean in order that Wade will pay a ransom, to be divided among them later. However, the kidnapping doesn’t go according to plan and the heavily pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is called in to investigate.
The Coens’ are rare in the thriller genre in that their plots are often disarmingly simple, but it is this simplicity that allows them to generate so much tension without getting bogged down in an overly complicated plot, and also allows a great deal of room for surprise. Pure cause-and-effect is not their aim: their aim is to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, not through causality, but through unpredictability and, to a certain extent, inevitability. Though I shan’t give away any details, many of the plot twists in Fargo seem completely out of the blue, but on reflection, were inevitable because of the particular characters involved.
Of all the great characters the Coens have given us over the years, the concentration of memorable characters in Fargo is one of their highest. We have Peter Stormare as Gaear who, like Walter in The Big Lebowski, is the “wild card”, the thoroughly unpredictable, almost psychotic mover and shaker. Steve Buscemi does what he does best as Karl, namely avalanching through dialogue in a high-pitched, nervously angry squeal, but is still granted the privilege of being one of the more sane characters in the Coens’ surreal universe.
Frances McDormand won an Oscar for her work as Marge Gunderson, who has gone down as one of the greatest and most memorable Coen characters. Combining the calculated efficiency and firmness of a top notch police officer with a buoyant optimism and a maternal tone of voice, it is very easy to see why. On top of that, one of the reasons Marge is so beloved is that she is a genuinely good person, and the Coens refuse to take the cynical approach by equating her goodness to ignorance. She is a warm presence in the physical and moral icy desert of North America and the Coens cherish her as such, and therefore so does the audience.
Beside the likes of Marge Gunderson and Karl Showalter, Jerry Lundegaard is often overlooked by general viewers and Coen fans alike, mainly because he is a timid, spineless liar, and a generally unlikable character. However, I think his is one of the most fascinating characters the Coens have ever written, not just because of Macy’s honest performance and the countless contradictions of his moral outlook (which will take up their own essay); he is fascinating in the regard that such an indecisive character is so pivotal to the theme of the film.
While Joel Coen studied film in NYU, Ethan Coen studied Philosophy, and philosophy is always in their films, lurking just below the surface of the masterful craftsmanship . Their philosophical inclinations are manifested in the primary theme of the film: we are not as in-control of our lives as we’d like to think, a theme which appears again and again in their work like a series of Greek tragedies. But rather than drown the film in tragic melodrama, the tragedy of Fargo is beautifully buried beneath a layer of deadpan humour in order to highlight the absurdity of the character’s inability to stick to the plan. It’s evident from the first scene that something’s bound to go wrong: Jerry arrives late for a rendezvous with the kidnappers.
These tragic themes are also wonderfully captured in the cinematography by Roger Deakins and the score by Carter Burwell. Deakins, who in this reviewer’s opinion is one of the greatest living cinematographers, does a magnificent job in shooting the snowy landscapes of Minnesota, at once capturing its scale and beauty, but also portraying it as a prison without walls, where one can run in any direction but never get away.
I initially thought that Burwell’s score was simplistic because it mostly rotates around a single piece of music, adapted from a Norwegian folk tune. However, the theme changes with the requirements of the story, so that at the beginning it embodies an approaching omen of doom, bell tolling, and by the poignant finale it resembles a harmless music box.
That is really what I admire most about the Coen Brothers, and why they are my personal favourite directors. It is not the fact that they make wonderfully crafted films that contain all the comedy, drama and violence you could ask for from a film, but the fact that they walk through the darkness while never losing sight of the light. You will likely feel shaken by the end of Fargo, but you will also feel a warmth one couldn’t imagine possible during a Minnesota winter.
* * * * *
P.S. I have decided not to feature the film’s trailer due to extreme spoilers
P.P.S. Though the film is credited as directed by Joel and produced by Ethan, the brothers have had an equal hand in directing and producing their films since the beginning of their careers, but a Directors’ Guild of America rule forbade their dual director credit until the mid-2000’s.