Hall of Shame: Fargo (1996)

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Director: Joel Coen
Screenwriters: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Cast: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Harve Presnell, Kristin Rudrüd & Tony Denman
Runtime: 98 min // Certificate: 18

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVLEHr2gqI0]

Fargo opens with the following declaration;

“This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

With mischief aforethought, this is nought other than a brazen lie from Messrs Coen and Coen, yet it’s one that helps ease the audience into a hesitant but essential acceptance that the bedlam that is about to unfold on the screen before them isn’t just plausible but also relatable. See, for in this chaotic and often farcical tale of the extreme lengths to which desperate men will go to get through the banal perils of life, the one constant is just how genuine it all feels, even amidst the relentless hyper-violence and tragicomedy.

Now, the Coens have always been adept at taking relatively ordinary situations and turning them completely on their head, and Fargo is no exception to this trend. The fatalistic undertones which accompany the film’s title sequence – a near-silent journey through an ice-laden landscape, blanketed in a fog which is once daunting, repelling and mesmerising – gives the audience a pretty good idea of how it’s all going to play out, yet such is the quiet, unassuming ingenuity of the screenplay, Fargo still manages to leave its audience guessing and second-guessing from start to finish. There is, despite its “comedy-of-errors” nature, a richness and a beauty to the plot that allows the audience to sympathise not just with Jerry – who is little more than a tragic figure trying to make ends meet in an increasingly uncertain World – but also for the inept kidnappers-cum-murderers who agree to help him.

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For me, a large part of our willingness to empathise with the “antagonists” of the piece derives from the fact that, irrespective of their current circumstances, they’re all terribly mundane individuals who just so happen to have gotten in well over their heads; a state of affairs with which a large chunk of the audience will, at least on some level, be able to identify. Jerry could be anyone we know. He’s in financial trouble, he’s desperate for help and so he’ll do practically anything in order to pull himself out of the grave which he himself has dug, such is money’s overwhelming authority in all of our lives. Furthermore, such is the systematic and inevitable collapse of his “fool proof” plan that one can’t help but feel that Jerry is the victim, not the criminal, in this whole murky situation. Everything which can go wrong does go wrong, yet poor Jerry isn’t really to blame; sure, he’s the one who devises the plan in the first place, but it is a combination of the gross incompetence of the kidnappers, the forcefulness of his Father-in-Law and the dogged determination of Marge Gunderson (McDormand) – a small-town cop who becomes almost unwittingly embroiled in the whole debacle – that causes his ultimate downfall.

Bizarrely enough, it is in this descent into the most anarchic, wonderful farce that Fargo is at its most evocative and focussed. The film is, at its heart, about a bunch of desperate everymen whose frightful circumstances have left them beaten and broken. The more desperate these men become the more erratic and irrational their actions, as one-by-one they drive themselves, almost literally, to their own unceremonious defeat. With limited options and no resolutions forthcoming, the film explores the depths to which all men – whether decent, callous or just plain hopeless – will sink in their quest to salvage something, anything, from their miserable lives. As each character’s situation becomes more fraught, the only person who pulls through is Marge, who – no matter what life throws at her – is resolutely calm throughout. Her hokey, every day, small town attitude stands in blunt contrast to the kidnappers’ foolishness and Jerry’s fatal lack of common sense, yet that’s exactly what gives her the upper hand in the film’s final act.

Yet that’s what Fargo is; it’s a film of stark juxtapositions. The Coens use extremes – farcical comedy vs. violent brutality, simple plot vs. complex execution, small town cop vs. multiple homicides etc. – to hone in on the most certain but basic facet of life, which is its defiant unpredictability. Like in life, nothing in Fargo goes as planned, and though the film deals in increasingly messy situations, the moral of the tale is simple and universal, which is part of what makes it all so enthralling and, as mentioned earlier, believable. The incredible performances from the cast – particularly Macy and McDormand – further help ground the drama. With their small-town accents, their blunt outlooks on life and their pitch-perfect comic timing and delivery, the cast grant Fargo an air of “realistic absurdity” that is highly evocative of everyday life, which is perhaps what makes it feel so timeless.

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If I were to make one criticism, it’s that the film suffers a little from its Psycho-esque conclusion, by which I mean the final ten minutes or so are all a bit neat. Not only does Marge just happen to stumble across the kidnappers’ car but then, after a rather tame face-off, she all but spells out the film’s message for no real reason, which – to me – felt cheap and unnecessary. Considering the preceding erraticism, I wanted something a bit less conclusive to round things off. Don’t get me wrong, the dire consequences of what happens throughout the film stay with you long after the credits have rolled, and I thought the final shot of Marge in bed with her husband (which is emblematic of the fact that, for everyone else, life goes on as normal) was a great touch, but I just felt that those final ten minutes were rather convoluted, and not in a particularly good way.

Nonetheless, in the grand scheme of things that is an inconsequential flaw that has little bearing on the film’s overall appeal because, for the most part, Fargo is a marvellous little slice of dark comedy. I don’t think it’s up there with the Coens’ best but when you have a filmography as strong as theirs, that’s hardly a criticism. With its confident performances, its killer (pun intended) script and its unashamed poeticism, the film deserves all the praise it gets. I’m ashamed that it’s taken me all this time to finally watch it and though I’m not sure what the TV adaptation is like, if it’s even half as good as this then we’re all in for a real treat.