Frances McDormand in 1996's "Fargo."

Fargo January 6, 2020  


Joel Coen



Frances McDormand

William H. Macy

Steve Buscemi

Harve Presnell

Peter Stormare









1 Hr., 38 Mins.


n the middle of Fargo, Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterful 1996 tragicomedy, the heroine, a policewoman named Marge (Frances McDormand), takes a break from investigating the case driving the film to meet up with a high-school acquaintance named Mike (Steve Park). At first, his intentions seem pure — in line with any person intending to catch up with an old friend over drinks. (Never mind that Mike initially called Marge in the dead of night —

something by which she doesn’t appear too bothered.) They meet at a bar on the outskirts of the titular North Dakotan town, where the seven-months-pregnant Marge orders a Diet Coke, which is served to her in a small glass cup with a skinny pink straw.


The ensuing conversation is a stilted display of niceties. It’s the sort of exchange you expect to come about when one of the people involved doesn’t exactly know what the other’s intentions are. Mike’s makes clear his deliberations pretty quickly, though. First, he tries to sit next to Marge rather than across from her — “Just so I can see you, don’t have to turn my neck!” she says reassuringly after politely demanding he go back to his original position — then admits that the reason he called her up in the first place is because his wife has died and that he’s been deeply lonely these days. Near the end of their awkward meeting, Mike breaks down into tears. Marge looks from side to side, contemplating how to get out unscathed.


Later, Marge phones an old friend to tell her what happened with Mike. It’s here that Marge finds out that what she’s just experienced wasn’t what it seemed. It turns out that the woman Mike claimed to have been married to was actually being stalked and harassed by him. He has a history of mental illness. He recently had to move back in with his parents. Marge sits down, her mouth agape. “Geez,” she says. “Well, that’s a surprise.”


Her shocked rictus tells us that the revelation is perhaps even more than a mere revelation. This meeting-up with Mike might be better compared to a worldview-altering epiphany. It's specifically one that causes Marge to realize that, no matter how benevolent someone’s intentions may seem, and regardless of how convincing the stories they tell are, duplicity can be lurking. “Minnesota nice” (though part of the Dakotas, Fargo is just on the edge of Minneapolis) becomes the otherwise whip-smart Marge — so much so that she, to a nearly dangerous degree for someone in her profession, is too trusting.


The epiphany ultimately helps her solve the case that takes up most of the film’s narrative. In Fargo, Marge is technically a supporting character. Her presence is so strong (McDormand’s Oscar-winning portrayal is of the immediately iconic kind), though, we’re partial to think otherwise. The real star of the movie is technically a pug-faced 40-something-year-old named Jerry (William H. Macy), the sales manager at an Oldsmobile dealership in Minneapolis. Jerry is in trouble. When we first meet him, he’s floating a $320,000 GMC loan, which he promises to pay back through vehicles that don’t exist. In dire financial straits, he contacts a couple of goons, Gaear and Carl (Peter Stormare and Steve Buscemi), who purportedly can be trusted on the criminal front. (They shouldn’t be.)


Jerry enlists them to see through a dastardly scheme he has in mind. In his head, the best way to get out of his money problems (and beyond that) is to stage a kidnapping. He will have Gaear and Carl kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd), have them extort a ransom of $1 million, and have his well-off father-in-law and — because this film leans into messiness — boss (Harve Presnell) pay it off. Jerry plans to buy parking lots, among other things, to get rich.


Things unsurprisingly go awry, and not insignificantly so. While transporting Jean to a secluded cabin in the woods later in the movie, Gaear and Carl are pulled over by a police officer in the middle of nowhere. The stop should be routine — the men forgot to put on the temporary tabs of their new car. Jean, however, makes a noise or two, alerting the cop, which leads Gaear to shoot him. A pair of eye-witnesses drive by; they, too, are gunned down by Gaear, who chases them down.


The triple homicide is what brings Marge to these people. It is her interaction with Mike that indirectly leads her to doubt claims from Jerry, whom she’s interviewed a couple of times and who appears to know more than he’s letting on, that he is in no way involved in the case. (She’s mostly asked him if he’s the one who sold Gaear and Carl the car, initially thinking that he would possibly know their whereabouts.)


Though dissimilar in their sensibilities, Fargo’s deft way of flitting between laugh-out-loud-funny comedy to bleak horror made me think of the works of David Lynch, whose Twin Peaks (1990-’91), in particular, could dexterously switch tones without a hitch. Laughs come from the Coens taking on the Minnesota-nice platitude, which feels loving rather than malicious (though, then again, my experience with the phenomenon is really this movie). Merely watching these people chat, and go about their routines, has an undeniably comic underlining.


Much of the comedy, though, is marinated in misfortune. You watch the Macy, Buscemi, and Stormare characters bungle their ambitions again and again yet can’t help but also laugh as you also watch their decisions unfold through your carefully placed hands-over-eyes mask. When bloodshed bubbles up, evident is that violence is not a thing the Coens are so willing to turn farcical. Tragicomedy is loved — the bleakness of it all milked — but actions like shoving bumbling criminal partners into woodchippers, shooting cops point-blank, giggling at kidnapped women as they run around blindfolded in the snow, are not.


The film collects fine performances. The actors, at the top of their respective games, ably straddle the line between the silly and the solemn. Never do they imbue their performances in caricature — something that would be the obvious choice here. Most winning are McDormand, here playing one of the great screen heroines, and Macy, whose inane desperation is now more amusing to watch given his role in the recent college-admissions scandal. They also make for the most obvious reflection of the dark-light dichotomy Fargo so excellently conjures. The subversion, however, is that with his fake-nice posturing and ultimately pathetic personality, Macy doesn’t make for a conventionally detestable villain. He’s a man so frustrated by the constant tedium and setbacks of his life that we can almost see — emphasis on the almost — why he operates the way he does.


Toward the end of the movie, McDormand, speaking with one of the movie’s antagonists, gives further credence to what I think is one of the Coens’ ultimate objectives: to make a no-holds-barred, satirical morality tale disinterested in holding back its dismay at the corner-cutters. “There's more to life than a little money, you know,” she sighs. “Don'tcha know that? And here you are, and it's a beautiful day" — it's not  — "Well, I just don't understand it.”


Later, Marge goes home to her perfectly nice husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), who soon learns that one of his paintings — a portrait of a mallard duck — has been chosen as the artwork for an in-the-making 3-cent postage stamp. Marge and Norm anxiously await the impending birth of their child. We don’t know what becomes of Jerry or Gaear. I first supposed that they’d neither be satisfied with Marge’s fate nor Carl’s if able to experience either for themselves. I wonder what would gratify them. A