Over the past three decades, the Coen brothers have established themselves as a staple of American cinema. Not only have they written and directed some of the most quintessential works of the past thirty years, but their filmography is almost as eclectic as that of Spielberg or Kubrik. Every film that the duo makes has a different setting and atmosphere than the one before, something that I find very commendable. In 1996, the two brothers made the now-classic Fargo, a very risky entry in their diverse collection of works.
Fargo is a neo-noir film set in the cold state of Minnesota. William H. Macy plays Jerry Lundegaard, a struggling car salesman whose family is in a desperate financial situation. He hires two criminals, played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, to kidnap his wife so that he can get his father-in-law to pay the two a large ransom. However, the situation becomes much trickier when the bodies of a police officer and two civillians show up by the side of the road near Brainerd, Minnesota. Police chief Marge Gunderson, played by Frances McDormand, starts taking the case under her wing, and the deeper she digs, the more Jerry Lundegaard realizes the severity of what he’s gotten involved in.
There were several choices made by the Coen brothers in Fargo that were unique for a crime film. For one, the story takes place in a snow-covered, rural area of Minnesota, a far cry from the urban environment that these films are usually placed in. I also thought that it was a strange choice to reveal the origins and events of the crime in the beginning of the movie, as these details are usually saved for a big reveal during the film’s conclusion. Also, for the first twenty minutes or so, we are led to believe that the film’s main character is Lundegaard, but soon after the first appearance of Officer Gunderson, the film focuses much more on the police chief. All of these choices made Fargo a very unique viewing experience, and the Coen’s impeccable script made these choices work together almost perfectly.
The Coen brothers have been known to hire top-notch actors for their projects, and Fargo is no exception. Frances McDormand’s performance as Marge Gunderson earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress, an accolade that was well-earned. Although her Minnesota accent is quite exaggerated, this lends to the more humorous side of the film, as Fargo is, at times, a dark comedy. William H. Macy is also great as the sociopathic Jerry, who we get a strong distaste for from the first five minutes of the movie. Steve Buscemi is fantastic, as he is in many of his collaborations with the Coen brothers, and Peter Stormare does a great job as a darker foil to Buscemi’s character. All of these performances were perfect for the tone of the film, which shouldn’t be surprising, given the casting choices of the Coen’s other movies.
The direction and editing of Fargo is great, as well. Many of the shots of the cars driving through the frozen Minnesota landscape felt very immersive. They give the viewer a sense of what it would be like to live in an area so cut off from city life, and the difficulties of solving a murder case in such an area. There were a handful of scenes involving Marge that I felt were unnecessary at first, but looking back on the entire story, I now realize that these parts were important for her slow discovery of the details of the crime. The humor in the film was cut in and out and appropriate times, a feat that many drama-comedies cannot master. The narrative was smooth, the progression of the characters seemed real, and the entire story was masterfully created.
Fargo might not be the best crime/neo-noir film that I’ve seen, but I still think that it’s a masterpiece. It’s creative narrative and smooth direction worked well for the unique choices made in the story, and the fantastic cast made the material very believable. I’m also quite sure that this is a film that I will enjoy even more when I view it for the second time, something that I find happens with most crime/noir films. Fargo is a great addition to the Coen’s impressive collection of work, and I highly recommend it to any fans of the noir genre.