FARGO (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Language and Sexuality

Fargo poster

Directed by: Joel Coen

Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Harve Presnell, Kristin Rudrud

FARGO is one of those films that I hear about all the time and have never seen before. It’s ironic, because I really dig everything I’ve seen from the Coen brothers (even their less popular efforts like BURN AFTER READING and THE LADYKILLERS). A lot of people seem to constantly reference or laugh about the funny moments in FARGO, but it’s not a total comedy. FARGO is actually a crime thriller that hinges on a lot of intricate plans that go sour due to misunderstandings between the characters and unexpected bumps in the road.

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It’s 1987 and the dead of winter. Jerry (William H. Macy) is an awkward car salesman dealing with some serious financial trouble. In order to score the money he needs to settle his debt, Jerry has set up the kidnapping of his own wife. Her father is extremely rich and will pay the ransom….to be dropped off by Jerry. The two kidnappers (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) go through with the plan, as Jerry’s problems become more frustrating. Things go wrong and blood is shed, which brings in Marge Gunderson, a pregnant police officer. Despite expecting a baby in a matter of a few months, Marge is on top of her game and this creates even more difficulties for Jerry.

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Besides their mad directing skills, the Coen brothers are also famous for their writing talent. FARGO displays the siblings at the top of their game. The only redeeming traits in the lot of characters belong to Marge, Jean (Jerry’s wife) and a few characters only seen for less than 10 minutes of screen time. I’ve said it many times before and it still holds true with this film that characters don’t need to be seen as “good” people to be compelling. Jerry is a total scumbag, but he’s very entertaining to watch in how he’s simultaneously a coward and a constant manipulator. The real stand-outs belong to Carl and Gaear, the two kidnappers. These are two of the funniest villains to ever grace the screen and the laughs come for two completely different reasons. Buscemi plays the part of the short, funny-looking (as many other characters describe him) motor mouth. On the other hand, Stormare is a hulking thug who doesn’t say much and is far more intimidating, but also garners plenty of jokes from his subtle performance.

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The unexpected directions in the plot seem to come naturally too. Instead of a grand revelation or twist ending, we see the circumstances that all the characters are thrown in escalate for one reason or another. Needless to say that everything doesn’t go as planned, much in the same way as their later BURN AFTER READING, this could be viewed as a sort of comedy-of-errors. The tone is far more serious than people give it credit for though. That’s not to say that there aren’t funny moments though, because the script is packed with plenty of the Coens’ unique brand of humor.

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FARGO is the classic everybody harps it up to being, but it also delivers on far more than just humor. A few minutes before the conclusion, a certain character delivers a bit of profound dialogue that puts the events of the entire film in perspective. What this person says seems fairly obvious and to the point, but it’s the way in which the speech is delivered that leaves it sticking out in my mind. That’s what I believe all fantastic cinema should set out to accomplish. It should leave the viewer with something to chew on, whilst also delivering on telling an original (or at least, creative) story. FARGO excels at this and stands as one of the Coen brothers’ best films!

Grade: A+

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