Fargo (1996)

23 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Fargo” is one of the most original films I’ve ever seen. I practically dare you to name one element from another movie from which you can say something from this movie borrowed. Everything—from its premise to its protagonist to its screenplay—feels like you hadn’t seen it before. It takes the scheme-gone-wrong thriller element and provides it with fresh twists in its story and its characters. Crafted by the Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan Coen), “Fargo” is a masterpiece—an amazing, well thought-out film that was absorbing and original from beginning to end.

You could say that the minds of both Coen brothers are unusual and somewhat twisted, compared to most filmmakers, but there’s no denying that they have a great deal of ambition that comes through with their scripts. “Fargo” represents all of their trademarks, taken up a notch—quirky humor, dim-witted characters, visual knack, and more.

The film even uses a stylish device as an inside-joke, saying it’s based on a true story when it’s not. There’s an opening caption stating that events similar to those in 1987 were the inspiration for this story, and the characters’ names have been changed. Reportedly, it turned out not to be true and just a sly joke at the concept.

The story begins in Fargo, North Dakota, as a Minnesota car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) meets two thugs, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare). Jerry has a bizarre, absurd plan for these two to put in motion for him—to kidnap his own wife in his Minnesota hometown and hold her for a ransom of 80 grand. He plans to have his father-in-law, Wade (Harve Presnell), pay the ransom so that Jerry can receive about 50-percent of it. It seems like a foolproof plan to him—he gives them a car and a plan and simply waits it out. But what he didn’t rely on was the notion that Carl and Geaer are not very good at what they do; in fact, they’re actually lousy, pathetic crooks. They do kidnap Jerry’s wife, all right, but then while driving through Brainerd, Minnesota, they wind up killing a state trooper and two witnesses to the crime.

That’s the first 30 minutes of “Fargo” and believe it or not, that’s just the prologue. We are then met with our true protagonist, a pregnant cop named Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). Marge is a grinning individual who lives a good life with what she has—a good husband (John Carroll Lynch) and a nice outlook on life, in that it’s the little things that bring her pleasure. She goes to investigate the murders, as she questions those who may have seen the two killers and takes lead upon lead until she is led to the truth.

Meanwhile, things only get worse for Jerry and the two thugs. Jerry’s kidnapped wife is hysterical and shrieking throughout to the point where her constant freakouts amuse the two. They are obviously having fun doing this, which brings a creepy, sardonic edge to the situation. And as Marge is soon enough led to Jerry, Jerry fully understands that his stupid plan has gotten way out of control, and unless he can do something about it, he’s going to be in big trouble.

The character of Marge is arguably the best thing about “Fargo.” This is just a fantastic, wonderful character to follow. She’s a police chief in Brainerd who happens to be seven months pregnant, and maintains a chipper attitude as well as a heavy Minnesotan accent (her “yeah’s” sound like “ya’s”). She’s very smart, very bright, and able to reconstruct certain events in the investigative situation she’s called to solve. Even if she knows someone is lying to her, she’ll still maintain her cheerful attitude with a smile, knowing something new will come from this eventually. And at the end, you realize she is the character in “Fargo” with the most control and the most ideal outlook on life. She doesn’t focus on just money for happiness; she knows the little things in life are worth having. Everyone else either wants something big, like money for instance, so desperately that all it does is bring them to hell. Marge is the one that stands tall among the rest. I loved watching this character work throughout this film, and Frances McDormand did a wonderful job at portraying her.

William H. Macy is also fantastic as Jerry Lundegaard. His fear and frustration that comes through as the character realizes his big mistakes in hiring the wrong people (and starting the idea in the first place) comes through with a great performance. Steve Bucsemi is wonderfully talkative as the beyond-sly Carl, while Geaer Grimsrud is very droll as the tougher, and bloodier, companion. They’re surprisingly three-dimensional psychotics—pathetic but not willing to admit it yet, if ever.

There are many moments in “Fargo” that create comedy from views on human nature. For example, there’s a scene in which the two thugs have sex with hookers in a sped-up one-shot that immediately cuts to them all in bed together watching “The Tonight Show.” There’s also the behavior of the cops, particularly Marge’s dim-witted male partner who doesn’t understand that the “DLR” on license plates means that they’re “dealer plates.” (I love it when Marge states, “I’m not sure I agree with ya a hundred percent on your police work there, Lou.”) Other moments like that provide effective comic relief. There is one scene that comes out of nowhere (actually, I should probably rephrase that because every scene seems to come out of nowhere in order to keep it all going). It involves Marge meeting up and having dinner with a high-school classmate, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park). She is simply there to have dinner with an old friend, while he obviously has something else in mind. After the dinner, she learns from another high-school friend (a woman) that Mike has lied about everything to her in order to get closer to her. At first, I didn’t see the purpose in this scene, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought it made sense. You see, this is sandwiched between Marge’s two meetings with Jerry. In the first meeting, Marge was unsure of Jerry’s story, but this encounter with Mike served as a sort-of wakeup call for her. This then leads her back to Jerry’s office, where she is determined to find some true answers—and this is the interview that Jerry just can’t take anymore.

“Fargo” is built upon originality and is a true delight that way. It’s well-made, well-acted, well-executed, and just so incredibly detailed without ever getting boring or clichéd. This is a wonderful movie that truly highlights the amazing talent of the filmmaking Coen brothers.

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