Fargo (1996)

Dir. Joel Coen. Starring William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi

I think it can be easily forgotten that in 1996, Fargo must have burst onto screens like a sudden cold front. The Coens had made five movies – Blood SimpleRaising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, and The Hudsucker Proxy – which are regarded well now but none of which were major commercial successes. Out of the five, Raising Arizona had made nearly four times what any of the others had made, and had placed fifty-first overall at the box office in 1987. Macy was something of a no-name; McDormand and Buscemi were probably more familiar to people already watching Coen Brothers movies than any other segment of the moviegoing population. Peter Stormare was practically new on the scene. Harve Presnell was best known for his work in light musical theater, which, if you’re like me and only know him from Fargo, is just stunning news.

To read the reviews of Fargo from the moment is to get into a funny time machine, where the Coens are not the most respected directorial unit in America but a couple of guys with a difficult worldview which did not land for many viewers. Liza Schwarzbaum notes that Blood Simple is their best-reviewed film pre-Fargo. Stanley Kauffman throws “adolescent trickery and sententiousness” at the Coens before noting that the “results are mixed” in Fargo, “but at least they are not uniformly pretentious.” James Berardinelli looked at the movie, appreciated the structure, but was left empty by the “caricatures” masquerading as real people. Roger Ebert is complimentary of their previous work, but describes Fargo as “wonderful” and “one of the best films I’ve ever seen.” His great frenemy, Gene Siskel, is of a similar mind: “The fans of their best work — Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink — now can add Fargo to the list, pushing the Coens to the first rank of contemporary American filmmakers.” It is a true watershed moment, one way or another, and thank goodness we got there.

Uncomplimentary reviews of the film – Richard Corliss in Time, Laura Miller in Salon – think of the “Minnesota nice” portrayed in the movie as condescending, which I’m not sure I’m ready to call it. A valuable lesson I learned at a young age was that a thick accent does not make someone dumb, and the “oh ya” and “aw jeez” and other penetrating marks of the Minnesota accent aren’t signifiers of stupid any more than “y’all” or “youse guys” or “aks” are. Having the accent doesn’t make Marge Gunderson (McDormand) stupid any more than it makes Jerry Lundegaard (Macy) venal or Wade Gustafason (Presnell) gruff. Even the regular folks outside the scope of the film’s central plot aren’t made fools by the accent. The hookers would be dumb if they talked like Henry Higgins (“Go Bears”), Lou would be a better fit for a sitcom than a police station anywhere, and Mr. Mohra would be sensible man of few words if he were shoveling his walk in Maine or Montana. And if the voices are exaggerated, then they’re exaggerated. I’m pretty sure no one has ever been “clever” enough to engineer a fake-but-not-really kidnapping of his wife before, and it’s not like murderers try to dispose of bodies with woodchippers every day of the week, either.

Gaear Grimsrud (Stormare) is, in a movie full of people with perfect faces and voices for their roles, quite possibly my winner in that competition. The slicked white-blonde hair is more menacing on top of that face, with his clunky nose and brooding, cigarette-infested mouth, than any other color style. He benefits from standing next to Steve Buscemi for much of the movie; at 6’2″ and probably half again Buscemi’s weight, Stormare makes him look like a woodland creature. How someone gets that big eating pancakes is beyond me, and while he’s not quick, seeing him come up roughly and swinging an axe handle down on Carl Showalter in a single motion remains one of the scariest moments in my movie-watching history. It is perfect horror just when we’ve finished chuckling about Carl, in what turns out to be his final freakout, screeching about how there’s no way to split a car in half. I’ve never known quite how to read Grimsrud’s expression in the back of Gunderson’s squad car. Is he slightly amused? A little regretful? He’s certainly not impassive; something is touching the edges of his mouth in a way that nothing has before in the film, and there’s a little more humanity behind his pupils. Whatever it is, it’s an emotion, and it might be the first time since he tossed the stub of a cigarette out of his mouth en route to chase down witnesses to a murder that we’ve seen anything like that from him.

Ebert argues in his first review of Fargo that Mike Yanagita (Steve Park), whose presence is nothing if not surprising at that juncture of the film, functions as a bridge from Marge Gunderson’s disinterest in Jerry as a suspect to figuring that his role in the drama is much greater than anyone suspects. He’s right, although I would add that the scene is essential in reinforcing, at a crucial moment, the influence that Marge has on people. She elicits reactions from just about everyone in a movie where other people have a really hard time getting anyone else to pay attention. Carl fails to get Grimsrud to heed him, and later on can’t sway Shep (Steve Reevis) from his plan to beat the heck out of him. Jerry might as well be speaking gibberish to Wade and Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg), who know that Jerry is a screw-up by nature. That effect that Margie Gunderson has on everyone – to grab their attention and hold it – is not such a bad thing for a cop investigating a triple homicide with few clues to go on short of “funny-looking guy” and “tan Ciera.” Her husband adores her thoughtlessly, which is really a lovely thing; Norm (John Carroll Lynch) exists to support his pregnant wife, mostly with food. “Gotta have a breakfast,” he says a few times as he rouses himself to make her eggs while she goes out early. (The Coens have this brilliant script in about a hundred different ways, but I enjoy the way that they seize on a single phrase – “I’ll make you some eggs,” “We’re not a bank, Jerry” – with the same kind of catechismic gusto that the folks behind Escape from the Bronx seized on “Leave the Bronx!“) He brings her Arby’s at the station. The two of them have a giant buffet lunch before she heads out to Minneapolis. The hookers invest a blissful sort of trust in her. Mike Yanagita , arguably the most fascinating person in the movie, is utterly smitten with her fame and her sexual potential. Others might have given McDormand that Best Actress statuette because of a line like “He’s fleein’ the interview!” or “There’s more to life than a little money…don’t you know that?” To me, it’s her mixture of polite grinning and quietly sublimated terror that sells the scene. She makes the difference between telling Mike in no uncertain terms that he needs to sit on the opposite side of the booth, then trying to save his feelings by saying she doesn’t want to get a crick in her neck looking at him, and finally keeping a look in her eyes which is far more creeped out than she gets watching Grimsrud sticking Carl’s leg into a woodchipper.

I’ve never spent much time talking about movie themes, but Fargo has such an interesting one, written by Carter Burwell, that it seems wrong not to bring it up. Burwell grabbed the basic tune from a folk song called “The Lost Sheep,” which, like most of Minnesota, has Scandinavian roots.

For a movie which is alternately funny and paralyzing, his theme, coupled with the sight of a pair of headlights dimly plunging through the beautiful blue-gray of a snowstorm on an invisible road, is more haunting than anything else. It’s a tone-setter where the tone seems to reject being set one way or another, and yet there are moments in the movie which I think match that gloomy and foreboding sense. Watching Jerry hike back out to his car after being laughed out of the office by his father-in-law and his business partner is a moment which deserves that music. Carl replacing one strip of a paper bag from a fast food joint with another on his bloody, mangled jawbone is another. Even the movie’s sweetest sequence, the one at the end where Margie and Norm lay on their bed and look forward to “two more months” until the birth of their child, feels like the right time for this movie to drop the theme on them. They’ll be wonderful parents, of course. But don’t they know they’re sending their little unborn joy (“carrying quite a load here”) into a world of Mike Yanagitas and lunches at the Radisson? of fussy millionaires and their resentful in-laws? of tall, pale men whose only relaxation is cold-blooded murder?

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