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No. 31: “Fargo” (1996)

“I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there, Lou.” ~~Marge Gunderson

Writer Elbert Hubbard posited an interesting theory about the rather opposite problems of brilliance and nitwittedness: “Genius may have its limitations, but stupidity is not thus handicapped.” Watching Joel and Ethan Coen’s caper-gone-wrong/thriller/bloody comedy (blood-com?) “Fargo” is like watching Hubbard’s words come to life — funny, outlandish, kooky life. For “Fargo,” with few exceptions, is populated with the sort of numbskulls who could not find their nether regions with both hands and a miner’s helmet. Watching them try and fail makes for A-plus doofy comedy, but with a sinister and violent twist. 

Chief among these morons is Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy), a shady, incompetent Minneapolis car salesman who’s hemorrhaging cash. He hatches a plot to get his hands on some green that he’s certain is foolproof (uh oh). Mostly Jerry just needs money, but there’s a small part of him that craves excitement and power; he does, after all, live under his rich father-in-law’s (Harve Presnell) thumb. Macy’s stammering anxiety is a boon to “Fargo,” since nobody plays a loser who wants to be cool quite as adeptly as he does. Thus, Jerry hires two local thugs, Carl (the eminently watchable Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare, by turns comic and ungodly creepy), to kidnap his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd). In exchange, he’ll give these hoods a new car and half of the $80,000 ransom. But Jerry has plans for a double-cross of sorts that, according to Murphy’s Law and to Coen Law, he will not pull off. Guys who look and sound like William H. Macy never pull off such plots in movies.

There are two things that poor, dopey Jerry hasn’t counted on. First and foremost is that the criminal’s he has hired are about as gifted in the art of crime perpetration as, say, the Three Stooges on a bad day. Carl is jittery and absolutely incapable of keeping his cool. (The film’s best throwaway knee-slapper: Buscemi lets loose with “Whoa, daddy!” when Gaear suddenly shoots a trooper in Brainerd, Minn.) Gaear affects an ominous stare and rarely talks, which gives him an air — totally erroneous, of course — of competence. The second thing that knocks Jerry for a loop is Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, deserving of that Best Actress Oscar for her cheerful performance), Brainerd’s police chief. Although she, like everyone else in “Fargo,” sports that too-crazy-to-be-fake Minnesota dialect, saying things like “oh, yah” and “dontchaknow,” she’s no intellectual lightweight. Within minutes of finding the dead trooper in the snow, she’s accurately recreated the crime scene and starts the search for two criminals. McDormand, a veritable chameleon of an actress, plays up this rather astounding discrepancy to marvelous comic effect. The combination of the “aw, shucks” accent and her razor-sharp intellect is killer.

In Coen fashion, the events in “Fargo” unfold in such crazy ways that it’s best not to pull too hard on any one thread. This film, a mooshed-up concoction of genres, contains that principle that underlies so many of Joel and Ethan’s films: The more power we think we wield over any set of circumstances, the less we really do. In “Fargo” this idea is played for laughs dark- and light-hearted, with director Joel Coen leaning heavily upon his strange native tongue to provide a stark contrast to the chilly white landscape (ably provided by Roger Deakins). The characters, too, offer more than enough color, with Macy’s wannabe kingpin serving up chuckles galore with his ineptitude (i.e., he wants to KO the kidnapping but can’t because he doesn’t have another contact number for Carl). Buscemi, doing his best Buscemi impression, and Stormare, undervalued as a comic actor, are a bloody-fun Felix/Oscar team. They’re like the blockheads on “World’s Dumbest Criminals,” only more cartoonish. McDormand and John Carroll Lynch as Marge’s doting husband are the only characters approaching anything halfway near “nuanced,” and even they are drawn in bold strokes.

Still, if there were nuance, would we have zingers like “Say, Lou, didya hear the one about the guy who couldn’t afford personalized plates, so he went and changed his name to J3L2404?” Probably not, and that would be a tragedy. Darn tootin’.

11 Responses

  1. It’s tough for me to explain how much I dearly love Joel & Ethan Coen. As much as I love “A Serious Man”, this one is their masterpiece.

    • I haven’t found anyone yet who *loved* “A Serious Man” … I was starting to think I was the only one who halfway liked it!

      Of course I share your love for the brothers Coen, and even though I don’t consider this one to be their masterpiece I never get tired of watching it. They’re juggling so many balls with “Fargo” and they catch them all. Amazing.

      • A Serious Man was easily the best film of last year (for me anyway). It’s a shame Stuhlbarg didn’t get any Oscar love.

      • At the very least he should have gotten a nomination.

  2. Great review! I love this movie- it’s so strange and funny and violent, and it really does capture that Coen motif of “no one has control over anything”. And those accents are so fun! It’s like Drop Dead Gorgeous with less teenagers!

    And for the record I really adored A Serious Man, one of my favorites of the year, easily.

    • OK, so there are more “A Serious Man” fans out there than I thought. Nice to know.

      Kristin Rudrüd by far had the best accent — reminded me of Rose Nylund!

  3. When I think of darkly funny, this is one of the first movie that comes to mind (and American Psycho). It’s well written, well acted, and an impeccably put together flick, and it’s no surprise to me that this found it’s way to #31on your list.


    I’m overusing awesomeness lately. Hopefully you can forgive me.

    • When discussing Coen movies — except “The Lady Killers” — I don’t think one ever can use the word “awesome” too much!

      This might be one of the movies that sold me on dark comedy because, believe it or not, I didn’t like it much (what can I say? I was young and foolish) for awhile.

  4. hey

    good worl i like your review, its very clear, i wrote one on fargo really recently on my pages, have a look if you like let me know if you like


  5. I enjoyed this movie, but I didn’t think it is their best movie. Bill Macy should have won the Oscar. Love him in this movie.

  6. […] “Fargo” (full review) — Dear Coen brothers: Thank you for showing me that it’s never […]

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