An Appreciation – Fargo
The comedy in the movie is so well handled that we almost forget just how violent and brutal it actually is. There are shootings, whippings, and beatings, just to start. People turn against each other, and innocent people are killed. When Gaear and Carl are at risk of being discovered by a police officer, Gaear kills him with little hesitation. Then to top it off, he drives out and follows two witnesses to make sure they will be unable to tell their stories to authorities. When Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis)—the Native American man who helped Jerry hire Carl and Gaear—learns that the police are snooping around, he beats Carl senseless for not working carefully enough, and then beats a stranger for barging in on their conversation. When Wade tries to take matters into his own hands with the ransom money, it results in tragedy at gunpoint. And then, there is the famous scene between the two kidnappers, where one man betrays the other with an axe, and then attempts to hide the evidence with the use of a wood chipper. These are all moments and scenes of terrible violence and mayhem, and yet we don’t walk away thinking about that aspect. The Coens set the tone a little differently than one would expect, where dark comedy plays an important role. You know exactly what they’re going for when one of the main descriptions of a criminal is “Oh, he was kinda funny-lookin’.”
While there are many factors that make this film good, what makes this film great is the character of Marge Gunderson, played exceptionally well by Frances McDormand. She is the heart of the film, the one good center surrounded by a host of terrible people. The Coens accomplished quite the feat, if you think about it, in that Marge, who is the key character of the movie, doesn’t appear until more than half an hour into it. But it feels appropriate; by delaying her introduction we get enough time to set up the plot and get the supporting characters into place, so that when she is finally brought in, we know how she gets from point A to point B, and how her investigation brings her face to face with these criminals. But Marge’s story is so much more than just about the procedural solving the witness shooting and kidnapping case. She represents the small town, overcoming obstacles that we would think are over her experience level. We first find her at home, waking up. Her husband cooks her breakfast, and talks about the latest bird painting he’s submitting for consideration to become a stamp. He helps her jumpstart her car. These little moments may not seem like much, but we get a sense that they are there to tell us that she is a person who may not be able to solve these crimes. Along with the fact that she is well into pregnancy, Marge, at first glance, is not someone you would expect to be the hero in a film like this.
But that makes it even more appropriate that she turns out to be that very person. With Marge Gunderson, the Coens created the most unlikely of protagonists, resulting in one of the most iconic heroines ever put on screen. Frances McDormand would go on to win an Academy Award for her performance, and a great one it is. Marge is so plucky, so cheerful and steadfast, that we could buy into just about any situation she puts herself in. She fits in both in the scene where she goes to a buffet with her husband, and in the scene where she interrogates Jerry, and that’s because McDormand makes us believe that she could maneuver herself into those positions. She goes against what we may have at first thought her to be, which plays into exactly the kind of characters that the Coen brothers have been writing throughout their career. Unlike the other people who inhabit this story, Marge looks for the better part of a person. She is content and happy, and only wants that for other people, which almost makes her lose the case all together. One of the best sequences is when Marge discovers that Jerry had been lying to her. Soon after the initial interrogation, Marge visits an old friend named Mike Yanagita (Steve Park). When she learns that Mike had been lying to her about his life, she goes back to Jerry, thinking he may be lying as well. It’s a very good sequence of events, showing how Marge puts the pieces together in her head, and realizes that some things may not be as they first appear.
Marge is just one of many memorable characters that the Coen brothers have been creating for over two decades. Joel and Ethan Coen are two people who should go on to be remembered as two of the very best American filmmakers of their time. They have spent a career putting quirky individuals put into predicaments far out of their control. Sometimes, the formula hasn’t worked as well as it could have, such as in Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and The Ladykillers (2004). But on the other hand, when they are at their best, they have made some of the best work of any given year, from John Turturro’s stressed-out writer in Barton Fink (1991), to the immortal Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998), from George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), to the tension-filled suspense between the characters of No Country for Old Men (2007). The Coen brothers have mastered writing characters that are not usually written about, and placing them in films that can range from slacker comedy to a revenge film set in the old west, but accomplishing each at the very highest quality possible.
Fargo, in my humble opinion, is the Coen brothers’ best film. It works in every avenue it goes down, whether it is the subtle behavioral comedy or the suspenseful crime element. A little piece of everything that they have done in their career is incorporated here. The dialogue is rich and quotable, the characters unique in their own individual way, and all spearheaded by one of the best lead roles in any kind of movie. It’s an amazing film that does not lose its effect after repeated viewings. In fact, watching the movie again will only strengthen one’s enjoyment of it, because there a number of tiny moments and scenes that may go overlooked at first watch. One of the best dynamics that I missed the first time was the relationship between Marge and her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch). What a lovely couple these two make. Yes, they are actors, but their chemistry together is so good that you would think that they have been together for years. They look out for each other, know what the other needs and provide that accordingly. It’s only appropriate that the film would end with them together, watching TV.