Director Deep Dive: Fargo

Director Deep Dive is a chronological look into a director’s filmography to see how they and their works grow and change.

The factors that determine how something becomes part of our shared pop culture can often feel completely random. You can cast a whole host of big name actors with a famous director and still create a flop. Meanwhile, two brothers with a cult following can create something memorable with a few character actors, a stellar screenplay, and a unique setting. Such is the case for the Coen brothers’ mainstream breakthrough, Fargo.

Set in their home state of Minnesota, Fargo is a crime caper unlike any other. It starts, as all crimes do, with an idea. Car salesman and general sad-sack, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) hires two scumbags he’s never met to kidnap his wife and hold her ransom. Jerry’s plan is to get his father-in-law to pay the ransom and pocket the majority. That plan quickly goes out the window thanks to the dim-witted Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and quietly terrifying Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), the aforementioned scumbags. The trail of bodies they leave behind brings in Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and an investigation begins. Things continue to spiral from there to the inevitable bloody conclusion.

Fargo finds the Coens returning to some familiar themes and offering an improved version of them. Like their first film, no one here ever fully understands what the other person is planning. Even Marge doesn’t get the full picture until much later. The film also continues a theme of those on the low end of the totem pole struggling for more. Jerry is the most pathetic example the brothers have cooked up yet, worried only about himself. He willingly puts his wife and father-in-law in harm’s way. The movie also finds the directors returning to the noir genre while blending it with their sense of pitch-black humor. Fargo might not be as hard to classify as something like Barton Fink, but it has a unique flair all the same.

Compared to their previous five films, the Coens make a point of being reserved with Fargo. Gone are the dream sequences and complicated tracking shots, instead the brothers opt to make the picture as straightforward as possible. It’s a smart move that allows you to better appreciate the world and the characters in it.

Fargo isn’t without visual delights either. Roger Deakins returns as cinematographer and has a field day with the harsh whites of winter in Minnesota. There are several shots of cars trudging on frozen roads and of people strolling through snow to get inside. The cold is ubiquitous, an ever present nuisance to all the characters. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie illustrates this perfectly. Carl attempts to hide a briefcase full of money in the snow, only to notice that the white surrounds him with nothing to mark the spot but a tiny ice scrapper. It illustrates the futility of his quest while also reminding us of the harsh environment he is in.

What really sets the film apart and gives it that truly unique flavor is the screenplay. The Coens use their time growing up in the area to pepper the film with a regional flair that feels authentic and hilarious. The movie’s grim events play opposite the cheery dialogue that the locals speak in. It serves as comedic relief but also clues us in to one of the film’s key points. The people you meet can be pleasant to your face and hide dark secrets. Whether that’s lying about being a widow or about a missing car from your sales lot, the only way to truly know is to push beyond the niceties. That is the fundamental lesson Marge Gunderson learns.

We don’t meet Marge until a half hour into Fargo, but she instantly takes command. As portrayed by Frances McDormand in an Academy Award-winning performance, Marge is the moral center that keeps the film from veering into complete cynicism. Seven months pregnant and determined to solve the brutal murders that have come to her town, McDormand walks a fine line keeping Marge from veering into cartoon territory. It is hard to see how anyone else could have pulled this off.

McDormand isn’t the only Coens regular to have a career best performance. As Carl Showalter, Steve Buscemi perfectly captures someone who never knows when to shut up and think. He has all the bluster of a man of accomplishment, with nothing to show for it. Peter Stormare doesn’t say much as the sadistic Grimsrud, but turns in a terrific performance as a ticking time bomb who goes off at the worst possible moment. The film also boasts an impressive supporting cast. Harve Presnell as Jerry’s father-in-law Wade, John Carroll Lynch as Norm Gunderson and Steve Park as the supremely awkward Mike Yanagita all leave an impression.

Then, there’s William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard, the man who sets the entire story into motion. I referred to Jerry as the Coen’s most pathetic character yet and that feels like an understatement. Macy excels at showing the desperation of Jerry’s situation, but what really strikes me is the callousness he has for everyone around him. He offers his wife into the hands of criminals he knows next to nothing about and doesn’t even consider how it could go bad. Like the men he hires, he is oblivious to consequence until it is staring him in the face. He is in over his head and completely unwilling to admit it to himself until it is far too late.

Fargo proved to be a critical and commercial success that was unlike anything the Coens had done before. Made with a significantly lower budget than their previous film, it quickly made back that amount and more. It also earned them their first Academy Awards for the screenplay while also receiving nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Editing. The movie made such a mark that it became one of the few pictures to be selected into the National Film Registry in its first year of eligibility.

While its claims of being “based on a true story” proved to be false, there is still a kernel of truth in that opening text. The events of the film may not have actually transpired, but the atmosphere and characters feel all too real. The Coens have always been reluctant to share details about themselves and their work, but Fargo is a rare look into some of their lived experiences. What could be more true than that?

Next Time: The Dude abides as we look at the pseudo-detective by way of bowling film The Big Lebowski.

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