Classic Review: Fargo (1996)

This is a true story



In December 2001, a Japanese woman travelled from Tokyo, Japan to Bismark, North Dakota in search of treasure. After watching the movie Fargo, a movie in which a criminal knucklehead, played by Steve Buscemi, buries a bag containing almost $1million in the pure white tundra which, in the film, is never retrieved. Of course, this is a movie. There is no million dollars because movies are pretend, but for whatever reason this woman believed there was still a bag full of money buried out there somewhere. In the dead of winter she was seen scouring the empty landscape between Fargo and Bismark, a short time later, succumbing to exposure, her body was found in a nearby wooded area. 
This is one of those stranger than fiction stories, which is very sad to be sure, but which also help to fuel the mystique surrounding a movie already somewhat shrouded in it. 

Some label Fargo a 'cult classic' but this is not true. Cult films are usually films that tank upon their original release but find an audience after the fact, like the Coen brothers' Big Lebowski for instance, which was a box office failure, generally panned by critics and found a huge following on home video. No, Fargo was a hit right off the bat and even went on to win a couple golden statues and various other awards. That the admiration for the film has only grown and the general consensus now being that it is one of the greatest films of all time, is only further testament to its power. 
But Fargo isn't a huge filmmaking achievement in the way that Lawrence of Arabia is, or Gone With the Wind, or even Silence of the Lambs for that matter, Fargo's enormity lies in its simplicity and its nuance. There are a few little twists but nothing like the much curvier Coen capers Blood Simple, or The Man Who Wasn't There. For the most part, it's a straight forward crime tale that takes place in a remote, frosted tundra and involves a quirky cast of buffoons and n'er-do-wells. And this brings us to one of the areas where Fargo shines, in the dialogue and the casting. You won't recognize every face in Fargo and some of the standout performers, like Kristin Rudrud, playing Jean Lundegaard, the woman who gets kidnapped, either dropped off the map or would pop up very occasionally in small nothing roles every now and then. But that doesn't stop this movie from being chalk full of performances which all deserve Oscars of their own. One thing you can say for the Coen bros is that they know how to cast a movie and every role here is perfectly cast, from the big, Steve Buscemi and William H. Macy roles to Scotty Lundegaard, played to perfection by Tony Denman, who's sunk into a string of B-movies and who's most notable post-Fargo credit was in Go, which isn't all that notable. And as great as the acting is, equal credit has to be given to the script. The half sentences and stuttering nervousness of William H. Macy's Jerry, the warm, easy back and forth of Marge and Norm Gunderson, the blabbermouth angry smugness of Buscemi's criminal, even the cold, indifferent silence of his partner, played to frightening efficiency by Peter Stormare, and of course all those 'yah's' and 'oh geez's and 'darned tootin's that are a highlight of the film. All of it funnelled into a pot, mixed with the stark, blinding cinematography and clean but bleak environments of snowy north-east America, razorblade sharp direction and a story that is based on actual events... 

It's an odd thing to claim a trailblazing for, but the Coen's did something with Fargo that had never been done before, to great effect, and that was that little title card at the beginning of the film informing the audience that the story that was about to unfold before them was true and only the names had been changed. This of course was total shit, the entirety of the story was all the product of Joel and Ethan's imaginations and they threw that true story card up there because they figured if the audience thought the story was something that had actually happened, they would buy everything that goes on in it easier. Interestingly, the Coen's are such good storytellers (ten of their fifteen films are completely original ideas) that you do buy that all this happened just as they filmed it. I still feel like I'm watching a true story even though now I know I'm not. 
Fargo is a dark, violent tale for sure, but it's told in such a way that it feels homey, and the attention given to the accents and everyday eccentricities of the characters means you'll find yourself laughing even at situations which aren't really to be laughed at. At just over and hour and a half it's over way too soon, even though there really isn't any more story to be told, and if you're anything like me, as soon as it's over, you'll feel like watching it again. 
I've always held The Big Lebowski as my favourite Coen film with Fargo coming in a close second, but after watching Fargo again recently and being made giddy at the brilliance that fills every frame and every performance (just watch the scene where Jerry is practicing how he's going to tell his father in law that his wife has been kidnapped and try not to be taken over by its unique perfection), The Big Lebowski now has some company at the top, if it isn't for the first time being made to look up Fargo's knickers. 

Rating: *****

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