Thursday, 13 April 2017

Fargo (1996)

Fig 1 - Fargo Poster
In recent decades, the Coen brothers have become something of a directorial household name. Not least following the accolades of their critically acclaimed pictures, including but not limited to The Big Lebowski (1998), No Country for Old Men (2007) and of course, Fargo. I'm a big fan of the Coens' work, however until now I've managed to avoid Fargo in favour of their 'lesser mainstream' titles. That being the case, I've been able to deduce first-hand just how divisive their films can be, and thus I am once again conflicted by another classic. The film has a certain cultural weight to it in that it was popular enough to spawn it's own successful spin-off show, much along the same route as Hannibal (2013-15) and Bates Motel (2013--). I myself do not consider Fargo to be as flawless or captivating as either Silence of the Lambs (1991) or Psycho (1960), however there is something incredibly watchable about the film that gives me absolutely no reason not to like it. Fortunately, and unlike the other films mentioned, Fargo is generally void of any over-quoted or parodied scenes (aside from the overwhelming Canadian-isms), which made it a fairly fresh viewing experience for a film of such grandeur.

The story revolves around family man and car dealership manager Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), who instigates the kidnapping of his own wife, the daughter of his wealthy employer Wade (Harve Presnell). Jerry does this in order to earn a cut of the ransom that will be bargained with Wade in exchange for her return. The rest of the ransom would go to the kidnappers, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), who unabashedly storm their way to a secluded cabin on a violent spree with Jerry's wife in the back seat. All the while, a pregnant officer named Marge (Frances McDormand) finds herself busy investigating the situation, leading to a host of 'chipper' confrontations that never prove too much for the determined mother-to-be...

The film won Best Original Screenplay at the 69th Academy Awards, along with a Best Actress award for Frances McDormand. Ever since, it has been praised as one of the Coen's greatest achievements in film-making, and even impressed Roger Ebert enough to deem it "one of the best films (he'd) ever seen" (Ebert, 1996).

Fig 2 - Fargo - Roger Deakins doing it right
I think what surprised me most about the film was it's determination to flesh-out and establish empathy for it's characters. Particularly considering the climax which, on the one hand would have been unforgivable had it killed the central protagonist, but on the other hand felt somewhat underwhelming in the same way a sitcom does when it wraps up nicely in order for things to escalate again next week. It's a very conflicting thing for me to articulate since the performances were so genuine, and in some cases lovable, yet the story just felt a little lack-luster. Having said that, the Coen's are responsible for many great films in which the story is generally a loose-fitting narrative in which to weave great characters.

William H. Macy gives a particularly great performance as Jerry whose intentions, though ultimately well-meaning, lead him to be one of the film's most despicable characters. Additionally, Frances McDormand absolutely deserved the acclaim she received as Marge Gunderson, who along with her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch), gives the film an inordinate amount of heart in her matriarchal role. Her pregnancy only enhances the affection we have for Marge, who exudes nothing but positivity and warmth in pursuit of such ruthless criminals. However if you don't find yourself utterly smitten with her happy-go-lucky approach, Steven Buscemi and Peter Stormare play off one another in an entirely opposing fashion which may be more to your liking.

Furthermore, Roger Deakins' spectacular cinematography captures the underlying isolation of the major characters with beautiful shots of the North Dakota landscapes. The untouched plains of snow are often punctuated by singular details and figures that greatly highlight the baron atmosphere and hopeless situations, giving Fargo a gorgeous look that manages to both romanticize and demonize the American North. The mid-90s aesthetic also reminded me a lot of David Lynch's Twin Peaks (1990-91), which has a similarly bizarre fascination with food throughout.

Having thoroughly processed the film in my mind, it is undoubtedly one of the more 'easily digestible' Coen brothers movies. Thinking back on those that I favour, I can only truly recall great 'scenes' over the films in their entirety. That said, I think No Country for Old Men (2007) is still a personal favourite, but Fargo is so rich with humour and warmth in a way that No Country isn't. Whatever the case, Fargo is unlike any film I've seen before in terms of it's look, charm and unforgettable characters. A must-see for fans of the Coens.


Fig. 1 Fargo Poster (1996) From: Fargo - Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen

Fig. 2 Fargo Screenshot (1996) From: Fargo - Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen

(Ebert, 1996)

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