Director: Ethan & Joel Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi
Streaming: YouTube (Rent, £3.49; Buy, £7.99), Amazon Prime Video (Rent, £3.49; Buy, £7.99), Sky (Rent, £3.49; Buy, £7.99)
I always find it strange that a film set in such a bleak, cold place, and covering such bleak, cold subject matter can be quite so upbeat. While Fargo is many things (including difficult to summarise), it is at its heart a story about being happy with what you’ve got, about not covering thy neighbour’s ox and so on.
For the sake of those who haven’t seen it, I’ll at least try to sum it up. Car salesman and all-round Minnesota everyman Jerry Lundegaard (Macy) has committed white collar fraud to the effect of some hundreds of thousands of dollars. With the insurer he’s defrauded getting dangerously close to uncovering his scam, he enlists the help of Carl Showalter (Buscemi) to kidnap his own wife and collect the ransom from her conservative millionaire father.
To say that what ensues is a comedy of errors would not give the Coens’ writing enough credit. It is a meticulously balanced cascade of individual mistakes that is violent, funny, unusual, quirky, and above all else, absolutely enthralling.
Fargo is driven, like so many other Coen Brothers films, by its exceptional characters. While the high-budget Hollywood blockbusters of today sometimes provide an audience with maybe one or two memorable characters, Fargo offers viewers at least ten. Some have no more than a few minutes’ screen time; one in particular is only in it for a single scene. This idea, of a broad cast of complex characters who may only be present for a few minutes, was something the Coens trialled with films like Miller’s Crossing, and ultimately built on in 1998’s The Big Lebowski.
Every single one of these characters is a rich personality with their own clear agenda and identity that is clear after just a few moments on-screen. Buscemi’s Showalter is a conniving weasel of a man; Harve Presnell plays Jerry’s iron-fisted man-of-capitalism father-in-law, and, perhaps most notably, Frances McDormand won an Oscar for her role as police chief Marge Gunderson.
Marge embodies the “Minnesota nice” optimism in a way that stands in stark contrast to scenes where, for instance, a man is fed into a wood chipper. This unusual mix of tone and style is present throughout the entire film. It’s bizarre and captivating, it would be totally out of place in most dark, contemporary crime dramas, and above all else it works.
With a cast of characters as complex, diverse, and interesting as it has, Fargo has no trouble standing out among legions of dark-gritty crime dramas which star the same brooding alcoholic ex-cop in a coat. Perhaps unfairly, it loses some points with me for being less refined than its follow-up, The Big Lebowski, and some moments where the plot feels just a touch disjointed.
Ultimately, however, this is a film like no other. Its use of the Upper Midwest as a setting and its reliance on politesse and Minnesota niceties make it fun, but at the end of the day, it’s the Coens’ exceptional grasp of character which makes Fargo a totally unique modern crime classic.