Retrospective Film Review: The Coen Brothers’ ‘Fargo’

‘Fargo’ (1996) is an exceptional film, half dark comedy and half crime thriller, helmed by the fantastic Coen brothers, doing what they do best. Set in the freezing Minnesota and North Dakota, the film opens with Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a car salesman, in desperate need for money. He comes up with an idea to hire two criminals, Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) and Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) to kidnap his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrud) and demand a ransom from her wealthy father, which Jerry, playing innocent, will split with the pair. Naturally, nothing goes to plan. After kidnapping Jean, the pair of criminals end up shooting a police officer who pulls them over. Enter the seven month pregnant Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) to investigate the murder.

Each character is brilliantly realised, well defined, and richly characterised. The pair of criminals, for example, standout as opposites, with Grimsrud’s sullen, almost silent, icy composure juxtaposed with the nervously talkative, jittering nature of Showalter. Jerry is hopelessly out of his depth, grossly desperate for money, and struggles to worm his way out of a situation he constructed. Marge is a fantastic character. Speaking in the American-Canadian-Scandinavian twang of the area, she exudes small town cheer, however, she is also a skilled and very competent police officer, easily working out what went down at the murder scene, tracing the car involved back to Jerry’s showroom, and doggedly pursues the case. She’s not at all a clichéd movie cop; instead she’s an ordinary, everyday person, who instead of being rugged and stoic, is kindhearted – a ‘Minnesota Nice’ – and utterly well intentioned. Being heavily pregnant is a really interesting part of her characterisation, as it shows just what women are capable of, and it’s great to see a female character operating in a more ‘male sphere’ and being highly committed to her job, without having to sacrifice her femininity and choice to be a mother. It’s also awesome to see such a skilled female police officer successfully take control of the situation, as well as be the most smart and capable character in the film, completely overshadowing all of the male characters in that traditionally male–dominated crime world.

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This is a film of contradictions, yet perhaps it is these contrasting elements that make it so brilliant. Jerry is completely inept at crime, yet stages an elaborate bribe. The film is at times very cold, with Jerry willingly risking his wife’s safety, yet at times also very warm-hearted, particularly with Marge’s characterisation and loving marriage. Marge could have been created purely to be silly and funny – waddling around with her huge coat and hat – but she is by far the most capable and intelligent character in the film, expertly performing her job. ‘Fargo’ is both funny and horrifying, with a particularly gory ending. It’s a crime story where the police are actually in control, and manages to be both stylistic and raw in its realism. Indeed, the film is set up from the start as being contradictory, with a title-card informing us the story is based on real events. Yet as the narrative unfolds, it’s clear this is at least mostly fictitious, as confirmed by the credits disclaimer of “No similarity to actual persons is intended or should be inferred.” ‘Fargo’ is a key staple in the Coen brothers’ impressive body of work; a grizzly crime story that plays out against a small town, folksy backdrop, with Scandi-style accents that reel off witty dialogue with the brothers’ trademark dark humour.

Watch the trailer for ‘Fargo’ below: