Fargo is one of the best films from the 1990s, offering an incredibly mix of drama and black humour. It launched in March of 1996.
From the legendary Coen brothers, it’s arguably their greatest film. And it’s one, to this day, doesn’t seem to age and only grow in stature.
Scheming and Devious Morality in Fargo (1996 Film)
Fargo is one of those films where everything is perfect.
Its mix of humour and bleak violence has been covered in other films, such as Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999) and 1990’s Misery. Both are also set in an icy wilderness, as with Fargo.
Here, the Coen brother’s darkly absurdist plot involves a bizarre kidnapping that goes hideously (and somewhat inevitably) wrong. That then leads to a trail of carnage, death, and strangely upbeat people.
Indeed, the people of Brainerd, Minnesota, populate the experience with cheery “Yah!”s. And they offer rather hopeless, but essentially descriptive, information about criminals such as, “Kinda funny lookin’”.
The central arc of the plot involves Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy). He dreams up an, eventually disastrous, attempt to get cash off his wealthy father-in-law.
His scheme? He hires two goons to “kidnap” his wife.
The unlikely duo being the tall, quietly insane Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) and the spindly, garrulous Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi). Things get off to a flying start with an awkward as all hell meeting.
Despite seemingly having reservations, Showalter and Grimsrud accept the mission and head out to perform the kidnapping.
Afterwards, it briefly seems like Jerry can call off the hit.
He has a meeting with his father-in-law (Wade—played by Harve Presnell) about a lucrative real estate opportunity. For this, he thinks Wade is ready to hand over $750,000. In the end, it turns out Wade is making the deal and will only offer a small finder’s fee to Jerry.
It’s at this point William H. Macy’s brilliance in the role really starts to shine out.
He’s playing a horrible character. A man willing to sell his wife down the drain and, if he’d been successful in his plot, act as if he had nothing to do with it.
And yet you can’t help but feel a slight twinge of sympathy as his deal falls through.
With the hit now back on, Showalter and Grimsrud run into a spot of bother in Brainerd, en route to kidnapping Jerry’s wife.
Jerry’s naïve hiring decision sets off a catalogue of disasters which leads to police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) getting onto the trail of events and attempting to solve the increasingly brutal, bizarre, and compelling murder mysteries.
Marge is heavily pregnant. But also super smart. Whilst boasting an upbeat demeanour, she eventually works her way to Jerry for a bout of questioning.
What plays out is continuously bizarre and increasingly harrowing.
Showalter is bumped off by his colleague in gruesome fashion, leading to a notorious scene with the former’s leg bobbing about in a woodchipper (2010’s Tucker & Dale vs Evil seemed to pay homage to that).
Previously, the pair had pretty munch lain waste to much of Jerry’s in-laws.
It’s an unnerving watch, but those strangely dark and humourous moments lift it above many other murder mysteries. It’s just so peculiar but authentic.
The likes of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote are very real documentations of horrible, bizarre murders. And this film captures the chilly, eerie insanity of such actions.
Fargo is brilliant, simply put, enriched by a glorious cast, eerily amusing script, a fantastic soundtrack, and relentless replay value.
Fargo is All About Steve Buscemi
We have to say, it’s Steve Buscemi as the utterly depraved, desperate, and blundering Carl Showalter who steals the show.
Although a supporting character, it’s Showalter’s bizarre, inept behaviour that leads to the downfall of their mission.
Whilst confounded by the unusual nature of the people he finds in Brainerd, there’s no denying it’s his clumsy stupidity that’s the real problem.
Charmless, slippery, and inadvertently hilarious, every moment he’s on screen overreacting to everything is a total joy.
Buscemi nailed this role big time and, in so doing, kind of ensured he became one of the top supporting actors of the 1990s. Although it’s been great to since see him in the likes of The Death of Stalin (2017). Long may he continue acting!
Fargo the Film’s Production
Fargo was made on a small budget of $7 million, which led to a $60.6 million return.
It was also a critically acclaimed darling, bagging some seven Oscar nominations. It won two. McDormand took Best Actress home and the Coens bagged Best Original Screenplay.
That’s despite the intro of the film claiming it was based on real events. It wasn’t.
For casting, William H. Macy was initially intended for a small role. But he was so impressive, the Coen brothers handed him the lead. That was a career defining moment for the actor. Ethan Coen has since said this.
“I don’t think either of us realised what a tough acting challenge we were handing Bill Macy with this part. Jerry’s a fascinating mix of the completely ingenuous and the utterly deceitful. Yet he’s also guileless. Even though he set these horrible events in motion, he’s surprised when they go wrong.”
McDormand (who’s married to Joel Coen) had worked with the brothers before, most notably as the lead in 1984’s Blood Simple.
For Fargo, the film was shot during winter in 1995. And that took place in Minneapolis, in and around Pembina Country, North Dakota.
After the production shoot, the soundtrack was scored. And we do believe that’s one aspect to Fargo that never gets enough praise. It’s an outstanding piece of work. The composer was Carter Burwell. Just listen to this.
The music adds many extra layers of emotion to a complex, inspired, and quite brilliant film.
In 2006, Fargo was selected for preservation in America’s National Film Registry by the Library of Congress due to its cultural significance. Good!
And Then There Was Fargo the TV Series
A special note must go to the TV series which first appeared in 2014.
It’s been a triumph so far, with a brilliant script and the malevolently charming Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) leading a stellar cast.
You betcha! Multiple series in, it’s become one of the most acclaimed shows on TV. That’s a fine way to build on an already fine legacy, boy!
This is a fab review of one of my fave movies! Buscemi is everything you say. I watched the TV series, half way, once. It was quite good, but I changed the channel. I felt like I was cheating on the movie.
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Yeah, I wasn’t sure about the series until I watched it. It’s Billy Bob Thornton’s antagonist which makes it work. The film’s a total masterpiece, though, and Steve Buscemi made “kinda funny lookin'” charismatic. Good on him!
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