Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Six


#6 — Fargo (Joel Coen (and Ethan Coen)
Fargo begins with a sly gag. Maybe it’s more appropriate to say it begins with a bit of a prank. A title card appears, asserting that the film that follows is based on a “true story,” and everything onscreen is presented “exactly as it occurred.” While a few lurid tales from the back pages of the newspaper may have helped shape the carnage in the script–most notably the use of a wood chipper as means for evidence disposal–everything in the film is immediately identifiable as pure fiction. Better, it’s immediately identifiable as the sort of dark, droll, warped, ingenious pure fiction that only the Coen brothers could pull together.

The film is built around a kidnapping, as is often the case in films by the Coen brothers. A scuffling car salesman needs an influx of cash. His father-in-law has plenty, but the snarly skinflint won’t offer up a loan. So the salesman orchestrates the kidnapping of his wife, sure that papa will unhinge his wallet to set his darling daughter free. Naturally, complications ensue, including one that snags the attention of the noble law enforcement officials of Brainerd, Minnesota, including one of the most chipper badge-wielders ever to cross a movie screen, Margie Gunderson. As played by Frances McDormand with a pronounced accent that she named “Minnesota nice,” Margie is a wondrous, delightful character, approaching the dourest of tasks with a plucky cheerfulness and veiled deductive genius. The performance is a comedic triumph, but it’s also sweet and true. When Margie surveys the criminal mayhem she’s been investigating with and laments the futility of it all, it’s a simple as can be, and yet as profound as an anguished diatribe from a learned philosopher. By then, she’s operating on earned trust, having demonstrated an open-hearted appreciation of the world that makes her seem uniquely qualified to render judgments. Pretty impressive for a character whose most famous line may very be “I think I’m gonna barf!”

Joel and Ethan Coen are originally from Minnesota and they film the frozen winter of the upper Midwest the way Oliver Stone filmed Vietnam in Platoon. The imposing white tundras of the rural areas and frosted crusts over every landmark of city civilization are so perfectly captured by Roger Deakins’ typically sterling cinematography that viewings of the film practically require the addition of an extra layer of clothes. It’s also nicely evocative of the engulfing, inescapable troubles faced by the characters in the film, particularly the plot’s mastermind played by William H. Macy. Whether he’s sitting behind his desk at the dealership scribbling furiously on a notepad, feebly trying to get a potential customer to see the value in undercoating, or grinning unconvincingly when faced with Marge’s friendly interrogation, Macy strikes the right balance between painful comedy and palpable anxiety. When he’s finally faced with the bloody remnants that are the inevitable result of his machination, the moment has the chill of January air.

Fargo is a key film for the Coens. Much as I love their previous efforts, this was the first time they completely struck the right balance. Their penchant for visual inventiveness is channeled into artfully constructed storytelling without any distracting flourishes, and the find themselves on the right side of the line between broad and cartoonish. It was maybe their first outing that was purely a great film, without any moments that slipped more towards an exercise, towards a sort of safeguard detachment from their own creation. It’s as if they were finally ready to plant their flag in the sand and declare themselves real filmmakers. Actually, make that planted their shovel in the snowbank.

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