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Fargo (1996)

A movie directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

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A Hero for our time

  • Feb 10, 2010
We are thirty minutes into Fargo before we finally meet Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), the petite but heavily pregnant police chief in small town Brainerd, Minnesota, who will become the hero we all needed. Relentlessly pleasant and attentive to other's needs, she is also observant, book smart, and people smart, knowing just the right attitude and approach to each character in the movie. She neither asks for nor needs any special consideration for her gender or her condition (although she does prowl for food almost constantly to feed her growing baby!), and is no pushover:

--She breaks a stonewalling ex-con with a quick recap of his list of priors and a shrewd assessment of his need to cooperate, and obtains valuable information.
--She swiftly and gently but with absolute certainty deflects the advances of a lonely high school classmate, leaving no doubt of her loving relationship with her husband Norm (how many other pregnant wives would bring their husband a bag of nightcrawlers for his upcoming icefishing trip and show them off proudly over an Arby's fast food lunch?).
--She responds sharply but politely when facing an exasperated witness: "Sir, you have no call to get snippy with me, I'm just doing my job here."

In my chronological tour of the Coen Brothers' catalog, they have just completed their cinematic examination of identity through classic Hollywood genres before moving on to Fargo:

Blood Simple was a great noir debut about misunderstanding identity.
Raising Arizona was a screwball comedy about stealing an identity.
Miller's Crossing was a deep gangster movie about discovering identity ("Nobody knows anybody. Not that well")
Barton Fink was a Hollywood insiders movie about understanding your own identity.
The Hudsucker Proxy was a fast-talking dialogue driven 1930s comedy about keeping your identity in the face of all odds against.

In Fargo, and in Marge Gunderson's character, they have gone beyond searching for identity, and tell the simple (but not true, as the opening screen title claims) story of Fargo. While we are waiting for the phone to ring to wake up Marge (and Norm) before dawn, we meet Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a hapless and hopelessly bungling car salesmen, who despite working at his father-in-laws dealership is deep in debt and trying to cover up a bank scam by concocting a cockamamie scheme to have his wife kidnapped and split the ransom with his criminal cohorts. The problem is he has chosen his team poorly: One never shuts up, the other never speaks, they bicker unevenly throughout the movie, and bungle the seemingly simple job they have set before them, resulting in the call to Marge and her methodical and nearly singlehanded resolution to the series of crimes that occur.

Fargo is set in Minnesota in the winter, and the landscape, the weather, and the accents are living characters in the movie. Even at midday the light is weak and gray, and camera angles often take in the gray and fading horizon line as dirty snow fades into blow snow fades into gray skies. As one of the kidnappers (Steve Buscemi) buries the ransom loot in a snow bank along the side of a road, he looks in both directions and sees nothing but straight level road, snow bank, and snow fence to both horizons, so he marks the spot with a red windshield scraper. Later as police cars travel on that road at the end of the movie, we realize that fresh snow has piled on top of the old, climbing further up the fence line--and obscuring the marker for the hidden ransom!

An action movie about a crooked car salesman who hatches a scheme to kidnap his own wife to get his rich father-in-law to pay off the kidnappers and split the money with him to cover his shady business deals--that is a plot summary of Fargo, but that's not what the movie is about at all. Its a movie about a place, a people--and a hero named Marge.

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More Fargo (movie) reviews
review by . January 10, 2011
**** out of ****      With "Fargo", I think that the Coen Brothers have finally perfected their technique. This is not their first masterpiece, although it's the perfect antidote to the disappointment that was "The Hudsucker Proxy"; AKA, the Coen Brothers film before this one. The problem with "Hudsucker" was that it delivered exactly what I wanted it to, but in the worst of ways. I wanted that film to be silly; I wanted it to be satire. And …
Quick Tip by . July 13, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Another Coen Bros gem. Frances McDormand is nothing short of brilliant. Ditto for Steve Buscemi.
Quick Tip by . July 12, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
This movie puts a bunch of stereotypes to bed without being preachy.
Quick Tip by . July 04, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
My favorite movie about dumb criminals in the midwest and the worst idea in the history of crime. A Classic
review by . June 11, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
Marge Gunderson inspects some malfeasance
I was burned in the past by overhyped movies.      In 1994 Pulp Fiction came out and every show I watched had snippets of the movie and commercials for it were everywhere.  I saw it and honestly it wasn't what I thought it would be and came away cold.      Come 1996 and three movies were getting some big buzz again.  Fargo, Sling Blade and The English Patient.  Howard Stern on his radio show mentioned the former two of the three as being great …
review by . January 18, 2009
Fargo - Special Edition DVD
Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy) is obsessed with getting his grubby paws on his father-in-law's money. He's in "trouble" (what kind isn't explained, but my imagination tells me it's some kind of sleazy business or real estate deal. It's made clear later that Jerry faked VIN numbers on a GMAC loan to receive $320,000 - but GMAC is threatening to call back the money). He's so crazy to get money out of his father-in-law, Wade, that he hires two petty criminals to kidnap his own wife and split the …
review by . March 19, 2008
A story about a bungled kidnapping that leads to multiple violent deaths and leaves a teenaged boy orphaned seems like an unlikely recipient of adjectives like 'funny', 'wry', 'humane' and 'oddly beautiful'. But that's the impression that this beautifully scenic movie leaves.  So perhaps the best review is to say that Fargo is an upsetter of categories-a film that uses the awful aspects of American life to point out the beautiful ones.   In spite of the resolutely depraved nature …
review by . July 05, 2003
posted in Movie Hype
Whenever I rave about a movie I've recently seen, there's the inevitable question "What's it about?" With regard to this film, I recall responding that it's about a pregnant police chief who eventually solves a series of brutal murders somewhere in the Upper Midwest. (Brainerd, Minnesota? Fargo, North Dakota?) It is always a pleasure to observe Frances McDormand's performance in a role for which she received an Academy Award for best actress in 1996. The film was directed by Joel Coen who co-wrote …
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Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #65
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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About this movie


Nominated for seven Oscars and winner of two, this darkly amusing thriller combines a first-rate cast, "a dazzling mix of mirth and malice" (Rolling Stone) and a bizarre kidnapping plot that unravels the Midwest like never before. Starring Frances McDormand, William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi, Fargo is a brilliant tour de force from the creators of Raising Arizonaand O Brother, Where Art Thou? *1996: Best Picture, Director, Actress (McDormand, won), Supporting Actor (Macy), Original Screenplay (won), Cinematography, Editing

Leave it to the wildly inventive Coen brothers (Joel directs, Ethan produces, they both write) to concoct a fiendishly clever kidnap caper that's simultaneously a comedy of errors, a Midwestern satire, a taut suspense thriller, and a violent tale of criminal misfortune. It all begins when a hapless car salesman (played to perfection by William H. Macy) ineptly orchestrates the kidnapping of his own wife. The plan goes horribly awry in the hands of bumbling bad guys Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare (one of them being described by a local girl as "kinda funny lookin'" and "not circumcised"), and the pregnant sheriff of Brainerd, Minnesota, (played exquisitely by Frances McDormand in an Oscar-winning role) is suddenly faced with a case of multiple murders. Her investigation is laced with offbeat observations about life in the rural hinterland of Minnesota and North Dakota, andFargoembraces its local yokels with ...
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Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Genre: Drama
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
DVD Release Date: August 15, 2000
Runtime: 98 minutes
Studio: MGM (Video & DVD)
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