The first Coen brothers movie I ever saw was Raising Arizona, and it hit me like a freight train. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. The year was 1987 and the world was introduced to a pair of genius filmmakers, arguably among the best of their generation, producer/writer/director/editors Joel and Ethan Coen, whose unique blend of dark comedy, offbeat characters and crime drama would wow critics and audiences alike. Raising Arizona was the Coens’ second feature film, and even though critics and savvy cinephiles recognized their brilliance, it wasn’t until their sixth film, in 1996, that the Coens became household names.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since the release of Fargo, the film that legitimately put the Coen brothers in the film auteur lexicon. Even though many consider No Country For Old Men (2007) their masterpiece, it’s Fargo that is the fan favorite and it’s Fargo that, of all their films, is the one that stands the test of time and will be their enduring legacy.
Fargo truly is a perfect film. It’s got everything: drama, comedy, crime, cops, criminals, a loveable hero and bumbling bad guys. A simple story about a man who pays two small-time criminals to kidnap his wife so he can con his rich father-in-law out of money he needs to pay off gambling debts, Fargo, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is an example of a movie that works so well because it doesn’t bog itself down with plot. Instead, it relies on the appeal of an easy-to-follow narrative and the endless charm and watchability of its characters.
Oh, and that unique local flavor.
If there’s one thing that sets Fargo apart from all the other crime dramas that came before it, it’s how specifically tied to place that its characters feel. Set in small-town Minnesota, much like the one the Coens grew up in, Fargo’s special charm comes from the characters who sound and act like the Minnesotans the Coens grew up with, including their Midwest-nice demeanor and their “you betcha” dialect. Many believe the Coens were mocking their home state with the portrayal of most of the characters as simple, down-to-earth decent folk, but it was, in fact, an homage to the inherent goodness they believe is a Midwestern trait. And it is because of this goodness that Fargo works so well, as the significant driving conflict of the film is the contrast between the “Minnesota nice” and the two cruel and violent criminals, played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, who cause great tumult to an area not accustomed to meanness, let alone shocking violence.
Which brings us to our two main characters, kidnap-arranger Jerry Lundegaard, played by William H. Macy, and Brainerd, Minnesota Police Chief Marge Gunderson, played by Frances McDormand, investigating the homicides perpetrated by the men Jerry hires. Not only does Fargo provide star-making turns for both Macy and McDormand, but these two characters are easily two of the best movie characters of the decade, if not of all time.
The story is Hollywood legend how Macy wanted the role of Jerry so badly that he flew cross-country on his own dime to audition a second time and jokingly threatened to kill the Coens’ dogs if he didn’t get it. Macy must have known what we all know now, that the character of Jerry Lundegaard is in the bumbling criminal hall of fame. We can now only imagine Macy in the role, and he is sheer perfection as the pathetic loser who’s gotten himself in way too deep with criminals way more dangerous than he could ever handle. Jerry’s complete befuddlement when things go wrong is comedy gold.
As for McDormand, as we are currently contemplating the fact that she could very well win her third Best Actress Oscar this year, it behooves us to remember that it was Fargo that first introduced the world to this now-legendary and beloved acting icon. Even with all of Fargo’s charms and production values, masterful direction and screenplay, the film would have been nothing without McDormand’s Marge, the small-town police chief who wins our hearts with her matter-of-fact niceness, quick wit, savvy investigative skills and monstrous appetite. Playing against type, Marge is the opposite of a hard-boiled detective, but she is no less aggressive or smart, a pregnant police chief who handles morning sickness and murder investigations with equal fortitude. McDormand infuses Marge with an optimism and kindness that is infectious, you want to spend every moment with her, even the ones where all she’s doing is loading up a plate with buffet offerings. It is in all the small moments where Marge is defined, from her casual curiosity to her quiet moments with her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), to her uncomfortable politeness when confronted by a former high school classmate who still has a crush on her, in a scene that has absolutely nothing to do with the story, yet remains a fan favorite simply because it is Marge at her firm but gentle best. It’s no surprise that McDormand won her first Oscar for playing Marge, one of the few Oscar wins that hardly anyone has a quarrel with.
Many though, including me, do have a quarrel with the fact that Macy lost the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Cuba Gooding, Jr. (for Jerry Maguire), but, thankfully, Macy’s performance as Jerry will not soon be forgotten or appreciated any less. It’s hard to believe that McDormand and Macy only share two brief scenes together in the film, but those two scenes, both in Jerry’s office at the car dealership, are two of the best in the film, a true master-class by two actors who mine every bit of tension, comedy and urgency in each scene. And let’s not forget, it’s in one of these scenes that we get possibly the best Marge Gunderson moment: “He’s fleein’ the interview!”
Fargo did receive seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, but ran into the juggernaut that was The English Patient that year, a fact most Coen fans will never get over. The two Oscars that Fargo did manage to win were for Best Actress and for Best Original Screenplay, two absolutely deserving wins.
Even with the disappointment at the Oscars, Fargo continues to thrive, even 25 years later, feeling as fresh today as the day it came out. There is truly something timeless about the performances, the characters and the story. Fargo is widely considered the Coens’ most accessible and mainstream film, but its endless appeal and charm camouflage the Coen signature blend of dark and quirky so well that you don’t even realize you’re watching something subversive because you’re having such a damn good time. Critic Roger Ebert summed it up perfectly: “Films like Fargo are why I love the movies.” You’re darn tootin’.
–Fargo features several longtime Coen collaborators such as Steve Buscemi, composer Carter Burwell and cinematographer Roger Deakins.
–Fargo saved the Coens’ career. Their previous film, The Hudsucker Proxy, had bombed at the box office, so if Fargo hadn’t made the money it did, studios may not have taken another chance on them.
–Fargo TV show creator Noah Hawley got the Coens’ blessing for his FX series, which is loosely based on the film and has brought a whole new generation of fans to the original.
– Very little of the movie even takes place in Fargo, but the Coens liked how “Fargo” sounded more than “Brainerd,” where most of the film is set.
“He’s fleein’ the interview!”
“You’re such a super lady.”
“Blood has been shed, Jerry!”
“Sir, you have no call to get snippy with me. I’m just doing my job here.”
“He was a little guy, kinda funny-looking…Oh, just in a general kind of way.”
Fargo premiered on April 5, 1996. It’s currently available to rent on Prime Video, YouTube, iTunes and wherever you stream movies.