THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.
Well, kind of…FARGO remains the best example of what makes a Coen brothers movie a Coen brothers movie. It’s funny, dark, and violent. It has a little murder, a little greed, and is a little crazy.
It’s a very Hitchcockian plot: a man, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), is having money troubles. In his desperate situation he hires a couple of low-level criminals (Coen regulars Steve Buscemi & Peter Stomare) to kidnap his wife. The goal is to get ransom paid from her wealthy father who hates Jerry. Of course things don’t go quite as planned and a couple unplanned killings have a small town police chief, the pregnant Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), on their trail.
Set against the cold backdrop of a snowy white Minnesota, the film captures a bleak, isolated aesthetic that makes its many moments of darkness work and its bits of comedy hit so hard. This tonal cocktail allows FARGO to work as both a drama and comedy, though the latter is how it’s usually labeled.
It’s easy to see why. The “Minnesota nice” accents (“Yah, you betcha!”) are hard to hear and not smile, even if people are being put in wood chippers and shot in the face. But you can’t discount just how great the drama in FARGO works. As plots go this is among the best the Coens have ever put together, which is saying something. The tension builds beautifully from the bumbling Jerry to the wholeheartedly good Marge to the nihilism of the kidnappers.
And it’s these archetypes that make the film soar. Marge is the epitome of strength and good. She’s tracking down murderers with a pregnant belly for God’s sake and never once asked for pity from her husband or co-workers. She is easily the most virtuous character in any Coen brothers’ film. On the other end of the spectrum are the kidnappers, who are petty, selfish and evil. In the middle is Jerry, a real schmuck who just wants the easy way out instead of dealing with his problems.
Like most of the brothers’ films, FARGO is a tale of morality. And if you agree to look at it that way you’ll see an intelligently complex look of the primal nature and flaws of mankind. But on the other hand it’s also hysterical. And, dontcha know, it really happened. (R.J. LaForce)