“There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that?”
When you watch a lot of Coen brothers movies, it’s easy to spot the patterns. “A regular person gets wrapped up in the world of crime” seems to be the starting point for just about every film, along some other classic Joel and Ethan tropes. These guys haven’t made a lot of bad movies, but some are easily better than others, and that’s dependent on a lot of factors. I think I love Fargo for a lot of the same reasons I love No Country for Old Men: the world-building, the quirky details, and the thematic drive that gives each movie its soul, something you rarely find in similar movies.
In the cold but courteous town of Fargo, North Dakota, Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy) seeks a large sum of money for a lucrative real estate deal. He gets involved with a pair of criminals whom he hires to kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrüd), hoping to profit off the ransom that her father will pay. When complications arise on the other end and his wife doesn’t return home safely, Lundergaard is investigated by the savvy Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) who aims to get to the bottom of these unfortunate circumstances.
Fargo is clearly the Coens’ best atmosphere piece. Not just the local scope of the story and the entrancing regional dialects, but the cinematography conveys heaps of information about this region and the people who inhabit it without a line of dialogue necessary. This then leads to what I believe is the film’s biggest strength: the contrasts. This is a movie about a wholesome town, nearly pure white, that is tainted by intruders. The geographical differences seem to depict a moral struggle at the center of the movie, one that isn’t too heavy-handed but comes through powerfully nonetheless. It’s easy to forget how much this movie has to say until the very end when Frances McDormand emerges as a shining figure of morality, fending off evil and protecting her home.
On a moment-to-moment level, Fargo also yields more positive reactions for me than a lot of Coen films. The humor arises beautifully from each situation and not just from scripted jokes, and the movie strikes a fun balance between weighty and casual from scene to scene. The movie was also perfectly cast, with Steven Buscemi bringing a slimy, engaging performance opposite Peter Stormare. We get to spend a lot of time with the two criminals, and it helps round out the film’s cautionary tale, exhibiting once more that ambition should never come before humanity, a lesson that many characters end up learning the hard way.
This is a movie ripe with other star-making performances, and it’s great that so many of these actors got to work together again on future Coen projects. I think Frances McDormand is the most engaging performer in the film. She builds such a quirky, unique charm in her character such that you can’t take your eyes off her in any scene. William H. Macy is also given free reign in what is probably his most well-suited role: a character that desperately doesn’t want to be a loser anymore. It’s a specific niche, but he pulls it off better than any actor could (with Boogie Nights being another example).
This is a soothing but captivating film, one that you could turn on for nearly any mood. The Coens demonstrate near technical perfection, but they allow the film to be guided by heart instead of mind, making it one of their most memorable works. Endlessly rewatchable and packed with stunning scenes, Fargo is a really impressive movie that I would recommend as anyone’s introduction into the work of the Coens.
Films Left to Watch: 879