An Appreciation – Fargo
“…And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day.” – Marge Gunderson
This quote comes at the end of one of the most unique and memorable crime films of modern cinema, Fargo (1996). The character who speaks it comes from a small town, where everyone knows everyone else, and life is made up of small beautiful moments shared between those that love each other. Which makes it all the more confusing for her when she comes face to face with the person who is not of that lifestyle, who is a killer with no remorse, and whose sole motivation is money. It’s a juxtaposition that could only have come from the minds of Joel and Ethan Coen. With this movie, they created a classic story of unique quirkiness, where the characters themselves are just as memorable as the events that unfold. The film is unlike any other, where the people you least expect get thrown into a plot you wouldn’t think they could be a part of, but in the end, all of it fits together into a perfect whole.
The first thing we notice when we watch Fargo is its sense of place. To set the film in the upper Midwest, the Coen brothers molded it in a framework that would be instantaneously recognizable. The Minnesota/North Dakota region has a distinct reputation for its accent, where people say “ya” instead of “yeah,” or where “aw jeez” may fall into the category of dirty language. This provides for a number of humorous moments for viewers who are not adjusted to hearing it, but we become surprised by how easily acceptable it is, and how in the end, it doesn’t distract from the effectiveness of the storytelling. The area is also well known for its weather, in particular the snow-filled winters. Snow dominates the film from beginning to end; whiteness blankets just about everything you see. There are stretches in the film where the Coens capture the snow far out into the horizon, almost in the same way a filmmaker would shoot the large deserts of a western. Only in this film can you see a man head off to do a crime, but first need to scrape the ice off of his front windshield. The combination of both the way in which people talk and the weather of their surroundings helps solidify the sense of place the movie gives—it couldn’t possibly be set in any other part of the world.
Which makes it all the more special when the film thrusts these people into its crime plot. This is because the Coens establish this place as “small-town USA,” where people get up and go to work, raise families, eat meals together and know each other by a first name basis. It’s a place that is very reminiscent of where I grew up. So when Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) decides to hire two henchmen to kidnap his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrud) in an attempt to secretly steal his father-in-law’s money, we’re startled by how something so strange and absurd could happen in a place like this. Jerry is an odd fellow—on the outside he appears to have his life in order. He has a wife who loves him, a teenage son, and an established home. Yes, his relationship with his wife’s father, Wade (Harve Presnell), is awkward, but not to an extreme. We’re never specifically told why Jerry needs money so desperately (although the golfing notepad he has may hint towards the answer), but in the end it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is how this plan, so shocking and ill-planned by Jerry, is bumbled and gone awry so quickly and so terribly.
What the Coens do so well is take characters we would normally never see together, place them side by and side, and sit back and see what develops out of their interaction. Take for example the opening scene, where Jerry visits the henchmen Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) and Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) to talk about how the kidnapping will go about. Notice just how much all three men contrast with each other: Jerry as the nebbish, family-oriented, low rent car salesman, Carl with his thin mustache, badly fashioned attire and incessant need to keep talking, and Grimsrud, the silent, creepy psychopathic killer. When Jerry arrives, the first thing they talk about is how late Jerry is to their get-together. From their initial meeting, we can almost assume right away that whatever they decide will ultimately be doomed to fail; even Carl must be reassured by Jerry that they are actually going to be kidnapping his wife. But we go along with it because of how well each character is realized, how well they are portrayed by each actor in their varying degrees of evil, and how entertaining they all are. Yes, they are bad men, and they do bad things, but somehow they are so engaging that we can’t help but be fully invested in seeing how their stories play out.
Let’s think about how well the comedic and dramatic elements perfectly balance together here. It’s a hard thing to do as a filmmaker, to make a project work both as a dangerous thriller and as a comedy on equal level. There are a handful of moments that work both ways. In terms of the comedic end, yes, the accents play a part of the humor, but so does the dialogue itself. A scene that comes to mind is the drive between Carl and Gaear. Both men have been in the car for hours, headed towards their destination. Carl, in an attempt to have a conversation with Gaear, starts speaking about random topics that Gaear has no interest in, and yet Carl keeps on talking, even after the point of annoyance. They make for a criminal odd couple, in both their physical statures and personalities. But yet, they are capable of doing terrible things. The same two men who gave a scene for comedy are the men who (very terrifyingly) break in to Jerry’s home and take his wife. It’s a very unnerving scene in both set-up and execution. We feel the safest in our own homes, so when a masked stranger walks up and breaks through our back door with a crowbar, it’s a violation of what we’re supposed to think is our haven, and the Coens pull that off here with startling effect.