Joel and Ethan Coen. A pair of filmmakers who are practically a genre of their own. A film by the Coen brothers is one with its own rules, its own understanding of human nature. A Coen Brothers’ film will not hesitate to undermine audience expectations and find ease in even the most dangerous situations – a gruesome murder could have just happened and you would still find it difficult not to leave out a slight giggle. A film by the Coen brothers peel back layers to reveal the grumpy underbelly of an idyllic landscape, a kind of disturbing insight that can only be found if you stop and look around. A Coen Brothers film can be damn close to anything it wants to be, because a lot can happen in the middle of nowhere. And no film in her outstanding oeuvre embodies such a feeling better than her black comedy crime thriller “Fargo”, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this week.
Playing with the notion that what is about to unfold is based on real events, Fargo follows auto salesman Jerry Lundegaard, whose greedy but somber nature is perfectly embodied by William H. Macy while he is two equally greedy and somber hires – thugs who kidnap his own wife to extort a heavy ransom from his father-in-law and to pay off his many debts. And of course, as is the case with many Coen-authored stories, pretty much anything that could possibly go wrong does exactly what leads to the arrival of pregnant cop Marge Gunderson – hands down the most memorable character Frances McDormand brought back to the Life – as she works tirelessly to track down the incompetent criminals who disturb the peace in the serene, snow-covered Minnesotan countryside.
Understanding a film like Fargo means understanding everything it isn’t and everything it should never be called. It is by no means typical in terms of its narrative structure, character development, or general view of the human experience. At first glance, it might be all too easy to blame the film for being overwhelming, especially when compared to the rave reviews and many awards it garnered upon its release. But that’s kind of an idea. It’s a movie worth multiple clocks that will keep your eyes glued to the screen every time because its story reveals the various anachronisms of suburban life that were impossible to reveal at a glance. At a time when big budget studios were ravaged by male action films, senseless comedies, and dark thrillers, a small independent film with a strong female presence proved that you can combine the best elements of all these genres and touch something deeply more human than something everything that came before.
With all the fancy genre mashing, “Fargo” mostly feels like a legitimately real story with characters you might meet on the street or in a dingy bar. This is the strength of the Coen brothers’ Gab gift and their thorough understanding of what audiences want to know about the films and their relationship with society. Audiences often assume that a character’s pregnancy puts significant weight on the plot and makes them weaker in their eyes. Audiences often assume that criminals are always one step ahead and know what makes their victims tick. Audiences often assume that wealthy suburban husbands with a loving wife and son would not plunge into a world of seedy embezzlement and arranged kidnapping. And the audience would assume that a movie called Fargo would have more than one scene in North Dakota. But that’s not how this movie works, and more importantly, that’s not how life works. Life is measured by the small problems made all the more outrageous by the folly of incompetent men whose attempts to correct them simply cause more problems. “Fargo” reinforces this notion by deliberately misleading the viewer and reminding us that life is essentially just one big mess.
Misperception is a moody game, but it’s a game the Coens play very well. “Fargo” is not least about misperception and dichotomy. The dichotomy of appearance and reality. That of an idyllic city and the horrific crimes that go with it. That of a selfless woman with a loving husband and everything she could ever want in life, and a selfish man whose dissatisfaction with life causes him to give up what he already has. That of the woman’s fragile body and the cunning intellect that rests firmly in her brain. That of Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare as a short, persuasive thug and his much larger accomplice, who hardly says a word. In the case of the Coen brothers, “Fargo” is a perfect demonstration of the types of dichotomies they effectively create as storytellers. The Coens thrive on their ability to write pitch-perfect dialogue and still make films in which the most exciting moments have little to no dialogue. They make films with a kind of realism based on the simple fact that nothing really makes sense.
Because nothing really makes sense, and because a lot of the events in the film seem random, each scene adds something to the narrative. The image of a person’s leg being shoved into a wood chopper is a brilliant exercise with an awkward but well-deserved sense of humor. The awkward sequence in which Jerry tries to foolishly cover up his embezzlement from the dealership feels surprisingly natural. Even the crowning scene in which Marge, taking a brief hiatus from her case, is unsuccessfully courted by her desperate, downtrodden high school friend, is in itself a major turning point in a plot that’s full of it from start to finish. While the Coen brothers mine their home state of Minnesota, a single area in an often overlooked part of the country, and the barren, white landscape is splattered with red, their whimsical disposition is rewarded in almost every way. “Fargo” presents us with an acknowledgment of the worst and best of humankind, based primarily on the fact that the Coens are not only filmmakers but also the Midwest. Most of all, they value the simple things in life and encourage us to do the same. In their eyes, this does not mean losing.
It’s easy to fire Joel and Ethan Coen for writing about the world they built outside of the box of overarching Hollywood stereotypes, but their inability to compromise their collective vision does exactly what simplifies their world structure and characters so brilliant. This also resulted in “Fargo” garnering seven Academy Award nominations and two wins for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress for Frances McDormand’s brilliant portrayal of the sincere, maternal detective whose healthy behavior spanned the day through selfishness, corruption, and that Evil takes hold of men who do not understand that there is more to life than a little money. In addition to her best-rated film No Land For Old Men, you will have a hard time finding a film that stays as true to her pared-back approach to storytelling as the film that lets the world know that they were serious talents. After 25 years, “Fargo” is also one of the few films that reminds us as honestly as possible of the hope that will surely arise after the end of the gloomy winter and the melting of the blood-stained snow. That way, it could be a true story.
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