Fargo (Joel Coen, 1996)

“And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it”


This was the ‘mock-simon-for-having-not-watched-it’ film for a long, long time. If you have just listened to the ‘Bourne’s Brain Baffler’ on the podcast page, then you’ll know that it was only very recently that I have watched it. Anyone who found I had not seen this would go crazy “You haven’t seen this! thats madness!”. I could wax-lyrical about No Country for Old Men or The Big Lebowski but Fargo – oh no, that was a crime to have not seen. Well, in the words of that fella’ from Gone in Sixty Seconds: “Now you’ve gone and done it [Raines]”. And I have. I knew the demise of Buscemi prior to the film – but luckily, that is not what the film hangs upon. The entire style is what makes it so unique- the Minnesota style, the nice-attitude. Minnesota-nice.


William H. Macy begins the story ‘setting’ up his wife as part of a plot to get some money for a real-estate plan. He is thick as shit, thats for sure. But it is the screw-up that the ‘outsiders’ make that destroy the ‘plan’ Macy had in place – Buscemi and Stormare, chatty and mute respectively, don’t know Minnesota that well – Stormare having never been before and Buscemi only with a passing interest. This is the set-up and, akin to Hitchcocks finest, this is dark-comedy at its best. Upon kidnapping Macys wife, Stormare and Buscemi laugh heartily as she runs around in the snow with a bag on her head trying to escape. It is that kind-of funny.

So, first off, the entire visual style is part-Coen, part-Deakins who stayed as cinematographer again following two previous efforts with the Coens. While we also have regular collaborator, Carter Burwell, who again provides the string soundtrack – eerie and homely in equal measure. Some shots are almost abstract as entire vistas are covered in snow. One show shows an empty car park, the small marks on the car park forming a geometric pattern. The world is important and Fargo, Brainerd and the locations used in Minnesota are as much a character in Fargo as Sheriff Marge Gunderson, played impeccably by Coen-brothers-wife and regular actress Frances McDormand (In Barton Fink, Blood Simple, Millers Crossing, Raising Arizona… even most recently in Burn after Reading).
This is worth exploring. Her character is only introduced halfway into the film. By the time we see her, Macy has hired the kidnappers, he has spoken to his father-in-law about the deal, the kidnappers have kidnapped Macy’s wife in an incredible sequence and, as they drove out of town, the kidnappers not only kill a police officer on their tale but also two civilians who simply happened to pass by when the kidnappers were disposing of the policemans body. Akin to Blood Simple, a murder is never an easy task in a Coen brothers film. Even Gabriel Byrne found how difficult it is to shoot a rat in Millers Crossing. Nevertheless, Frances McDormand’s ‘Madge’ is such a force that as soon as we see her and ‘Norm’ wake up to the call of a homicide, it is she who is the centre of the story. Everything else turns to dust. Her idiosyncrasies and mannerisms, “yah” simply make every sequence amazing to watch. She notes on the documentary that she can only do ‘Madge’ when in the wig – which doesn’t surprise me. Something so fluid can’t be turned on and off – you have to physically become the character.

William H. Macy’s lead role is additionally an incredible character – though at the same time, a pathetic man. But thats not the first time we have seen this in a Coen’s film. Lets think, pathetic lead men – Barton Fink in Barton Fink, Ray in Blood Simple and most recently Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man. All so self-involved that they don’t realise the obvious. Then, another Coen-cliche – the barren landscapes. Rather snowscapes than deserts in No Country for Old Men or the fields that I have seen in the adverts for O Brother, Where Art Thou (yes, I will watch it as soon as possible – next is The Hudsucker Proxy and Raising Arizona)
Then, as previously mention, the theme of a murder. More precisely, murder-going-wrong after a paid-for-hire killer is hired to do such a job. See Millers Crossing and Blood Simple from the same Coen era. This theme in and of itself comes from the Master of Suspense himself – Hitchcock. It always comes down to Hitchcock. Think Rope or Strangers on a Train … go further than that to simply murders-gone-wrong and we have Psycho, Frenzy, Dial M for Murder … the list goes on.
In closing, this is a truly great film. It sure does belong ‘up there’ with the great Coen brothers films. Not only does it bring together many of the Coen’s trademarks – but it does so with the most incredible characters in a place so unique that only Joel and Ethan Coen could bring such a place to life with such interest. I thought the film was great and sorry for not having watched it until now.


  1. Great post!

    Whenever I think of FARGO, I go back to the first time I saw it (Spring of '97 for that year's Oscar season). I think back upon that time since I can very clearly remember…

    …hating it.

    I didn't get it, the black humour was lost on me, the absurdity of it all didn't entertain, it just mocked. I swore up and down that it might have been the biggest waste of my time ever.

    Then a funny thing happened.

    A few years later, I watched it again…and didn't hate it so much. Then I watched it again, and again. So by the time it's all said and done, what first irritated the hell out of me is now one of my all time faves.

    Guess it just goes to show ya, sometimes you have to give a movie a second chance!

  2. First off, good for you both. Good on you, Simon, for finally getting around to this one. It's at the top of my Coen brothers list, with Lebowski right there, too. And good on you, Hatter, for coming around to it. I pretty much loved it from the start, but I've known plenty who were turned off enough by the accents to never get beyond them. It's hilarious, sad, poignant and all-around terrific.

  3. @Mad hatter – its funny. End of the day, you're not going to watch a film again if you really think its rubbish so clearly something was speaking to you and pulling you back. Maybe it was Marge – yah?

    @Fletch – Raising Arizona and Hudsucker Proxy is awaiting a viewing – which should I watch first, I ask?

  4. Definitely Raising Arizona, though I do like much of Proxy as well. It gets kind of a bad rap – it's more in their Intolerable Cruelty/Burn After Reading vein of silly comedies, but has plenty of fun moments.

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