Fargo. Ever mention that title to someone and they are most likely going to put on a thick Minnesota accent and recite one of the lines of the film. That is the impact this film had in 1996. Celebrating its 20th Birthday in 2016, I thought it would be a good idea to watch it again and give my thoughts and feelings. I am pleased to report, it is still just as funny, as weird and as thrilling as the first time I watched it. I can now see why it has been adopted into a TV series.
Brought to you by the same directors of Barton Fink, The Coen Brothers, Fargo was one of their first quirky mystery films and established itself as one of the best black comedies ever made. Set in the town of the same name in Minnesota, the film follows a complicated plot involving pregnant police women Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) investigating a murder case connecting to desperate car salesman Jerry (William H. Macy) hiring two criminals (Steve Buscemi & Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife for ransom money to benefit both parties. I know, when I first heard it, I struggled to keep up as well, but there isn’t any need to worry. The story is so well written, anyone can understand it and thanks to the comedy and sharp writing, it definitely keeps your attention. My only concern, is that the humour does take a while to kick in and may not always have the same quick knock on effect as you may be hoping, but everyone has different taste. This has always been the case with the Coen Brothers, they write so that anyone could actually like their stuff and this was so well written, it earned them their first Academy Award. It is very hard to compare this to other comedy material, except to their own films; that is a testament to their style and impact on the industry.
Not only that, the Coen Brothers are incredibly talented directors. They may not have the precision of Alejandro G. Inarritu, or the spiritualism of Terrence Malick, but what they have is flare. They make even the deepest and emotional films exciting somehow and Fargo demonstrates this with the use of comedy and violence. You remember this mostly for the humour, but at the same time, you remember the thrills, the drama and the beauty of each scene. The real scene stealer has to be Frances McDormand who brings, I think, the best comedy female role ever on film and I most also commend the rest of the cast, especially William H. Macy, Peter Stormare and Steve Buscemi for creating truly memorable and witty characters that are unparalleled, and that is an actual fact.
Of course, being made one a tiny budget, it is obvious this film was never going to win prizes for technical achievements in practical or visual effects, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t forget about them. This is a murder story with blood, guts and human limbs being fed into a wood chipper. It isn’t as realistic or terrifying as other thrillers but when put into context with the comedy, it does make sense. And in reality, when it comes to a Coen Brothers movie, it doesn’t require a massive amount of practical special effects wizardry; it is all about the sensation of what you feel when put in the right context and 9 times out of 10, it works (with the exception of Lady-killers).
It’s the same story with the sound design. Watching most multi-million dollar pictures is a bit like being in no-mans-land; the barrage of sound from a million different sources blasting at your face can be very disorienting for the viewer. In Fargo, and most of the Coen Brothers films, the sound is sparse, but very atmospheric. Snow crunching underfoot, distant gunshots from a handgun, rumbling 4-cylinder car engines and perhaps the most haunting and tone setting sound of all, the winter wind. I know this all seems odd from a comedy movie, but remember, this is also a thriller and the atmosphere is just right, even if cars do rob the tone from scenes, but they are American, they will always do that.
Coen Brothers regular Carter Burwell composed a soundtrack that may not be as menacing or funny as the genre of the film, but provides the everyday atmosphere and story propulsion that the film deserves. Most of the music comes from the score which taps into the thoughts of the characters rather than their feelings like in most films and the rest is from songs that feature in bars, on the radio or the piano player at a fancy restaurant. It may not be much, but it is all the film actually needs.
The best technical achievements of Fargo lie in the cinematography and set design. When this was filmed, it was the warmest winter on record for Fargo and quite a few scenes required fake snow scattered all over the place and even required single takes to prevent going back and cleaning it all up to try again. That level of commitment and on location talent is one of the key reasons why Fargo is so good; the filmmakers really did go all the way just to make this film as real as the story claims it is. Because most of it was shot on location, it doesn’t get top prizes for set pieces, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it matches what most people think of Minnesota, not that many people do think of it that often.
And then there is the cinematography. Coen Brothers friend and collaborator Roger Deakins (who still hasn’t won an Oscar, after 13 nominations) probably did one of his best ever works on this film, proving just what I suspected for a while; he is the master of shooting films, in the dark. No matter where he goes, no matter what film he does, scenes set at night or in the dark have a great feel to them that no other film has, and in Fargo, this was one of his master works. The light, the snow and even the position of the camera create a scene that is not only visible, but unsettling as well, you feel you are there in the same state as the characters. I’m surprised he hasn’t won an Oscar yet; it is only a matter of time.
As for the costume design? Well like the practical effects and sound design, there is no great detail or hidden meaning in their appearance, but that is the point. Marge wears a winter police jacket because it is cold, not to hide her belly. Jerry looks like a feeble tool, because that is what his character is and the criminals, don’t get me started. The point is, they look like ordinary people, which adds to the reality factor of this story, and that is all that is needed.
Fargo is a prime example of what a film can be, if the filmmakers decide to appeal to a vast array of people with many different tastes and gives us something that is impossible to dislike. Yes, the humour is a bit off in some areas, but that maybe because I don’t get certain jokes or I’m an idiot. Either way, this is a great film.
I give this film a 10/10.