To Jenny’s surprise, and admittedly a bit to my own, nobody had ever decided to show the Coen Brothers’ 1996 breakthrough film Fargo. So she did. (I think the fact she hails from Minnesota actually had something to do with this.)
Before the film, I pulled out about the coldest MST3K short I could find – Snow Thrills! Enjoy, won’t you?
I think the one of the greatest things about Fargo (the film, I have no input on the city itself) is that outside of the first scene of the film everything happens in Minnesota. I mean, I guess you can call a movie anything you want, but this is a bit of false advertising. Won’t somebody please think of the poor folks from North Dakota?
This here is Jerry Lundegaard. Jerry is the main character in this film, which is unfortunate in that he’s just about the worst combination of slimy, smarmy, cowardly, and just flat out dumb that has ever been put to film. Full credit to William H. Macy here, because he pulls it off beautifully.
Lundegaard has a bit of a problem. He’s employed as a manager at a car dealership by this guy, his extremely rich father-in-law. But seeing as the father-in-law is not very free with his money (he sneeringly tells Jerry that Jean and Scotty – Jerry’s wife and son – will never need to worry about money while notably excluding Jerry himself) and seeing as Jerry has apparently been embezzling money in some GMAC car loan scams that are on the verge of being discovered, Jerry has need of large amounts of money, and fast.
And completely ignoring the fact that he’s almost certain to soon get exposed for the car loan scam anyway, Jerry cooks up a plan to get that cash. Since his father-in-law won’t give him any money, why not have some heavies kidnap his wife and call in a ransom? By instructing his new-accomplice bad guys to insist on dealing only with him, he can further manipulate things – how I’ll make clear shortly.
These here are the kidnappers. They have names, but let’s really just refer to them as Peter Stormare and Steve Buscemi, because nobody actually cares what their names are. Buscemi is a greedy, weasely guy – in one scene he goes to an airport parking lot to steal a license plate, and actually tries to talk his way out of paying the $5 parking fee because he “decided not to park there”. Stormare, on the other hand, is a taciturn, stone-cold killer. As far as these two are concerned, the ransom is $80,000 (to be extracted from the father-in-law) and they get to keep half, plus a car that Jerry has delivered from the dealership for them to use in the kidnapping. Of course, once the deed is done Jerry tells his father in law that the ransom is one million dollars, intending to keep a cool $960K for himself.
This is a statue of Paul Bunyan welcoming you to Brainerd, Minnesota. It is creepy. It was made for the film, later dismantled, and does not really exist to welcome travelers to Brainerd in the real world. In the film, it merely oversees the highway where everything about this cockamamie plot starts to go awry. You see, late one night, while their kidnapping victim is tied up in the backseat, Buscemi and Stormare are pulled over by a trooper for failing to properly display their registration associated with the dealer plates. They might have gotten away with a ticket, but Buscemi – because he is stupid – tries to bribe the policeman instead. When this bribe attempt makes things much worse, Stormare suddenly murders the trooper, and, when a passing car sees Buscemi disposing of the body, Stormare chases them down and murders them too.
Enter Marge Gunderson, the mild-mannered and seven-months-pregnant Brainerd police chief, who, through some fairly standard detective work begins to chase down leads on the murders. Since the trooper’s log indicates that he had last pulled over a car with dealer plates, she is led directly to Lundegaard, though she is more looking for clues than suspecting him of being involved, at first.
Of course, there are still more opportunities to apply Murphy’s Law to this plot, and a good one would be for the father-in-law to absolutely insist on delivering the ransom rather than Jerry, whom he does not trust to not bungle things. Jerry cannot insist otherwise. Well, naturally Buscemi was not at all expecting the father-in-law to show up himself, and things go wrong again, with the father-in-law wounding Buscemi pretty severely with a glancing gunshot to the face, and Buscemi in turn killing the father-in-law and taking the ransom suitcase…which has waaaaaaay more money in it than it was supposed to. So Buscemi takes the expected ransom out, and buries the remainder in the snow to get later, because he’ll be damned if he’s going to share this windfall with Stormare.
But the handoff with Stormare at the hideout cabin goes pretty badly. First, off, in the meantime Stormare has murdered their captive because she wouldn’t stop screaming. And second, Buscemi argues with Stormare about who gets the dealer car. Hello! You’ve got $920K that he doesn’t know about! Let him have the car! But no, Buscemi insists on taking the car. So Stormare kills him with an axe and stuffs him into the wood chipper, the aftermath of which Chief Gunderson stumbles onto. In the end, Lundegaard, who has fled his final interview with Marge, is captured in the whiniest and most sniveling possible way, and the film ends.
I’ve always felt that the fame that Fargo has derives almost exclusively from the wood chipper scene. It is shocking, and it is gory, and it’s unexpected in a somehow comedic way. Credit also need to be given to Frances McDormand and her wonderful characterization of Marge Gunderson. McDormand actually won Best Actress for the role – deservedly I think, but somewhat surprisingly because it’s not a very meaty role. In my head, and yes I had to check the interwebs, I thought she had won Best SUPPORTING Actress.
This may actually go a long ways towards explaining one of my major critiques of the film. That critique is this: The Coen Brothers are known for very tight scripts. Complicated, but tight. And the Fargo script is simply not tight in my opinion. The biggest fault in the script is the Mike Yanagita subplot. Yanagita is an old high-school friend of Marge’s who tries to reconnect in a creepily sexual way despite her obvious unavailability and using a fairly shabby web of lies to do it. This subplot has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the movie. It should have been excised. It occupies, say, five minutes which while entertaining do nothing to move the plot forward or explain intricacies in the film. This is extremely, extremely un-Coen-like. But pull it out, and the Gunderson role can’t possibly have enough screen time to really qualify for Best Actress. I wonder if, seeing how perfectly she nailed the role, it was left in specifically with awards in mind.
My other major critique has less to do with the film and more to do with personal preference. Lundegaard is simply one of the most unpleasant characters to watch on screen that has ever existed. And he is unpleasant for large, large stretches of the film. Again, full credit to Macy, but I don’t actually get any glee from watching it. And weirdly enough, as much as I hated his character, on this repeat viewing I realized that I really wanted his character to get away with it. The reason has nothing to do with the character but everything to do with the tone of the film and with the script problems that would have to be solved in order to actually make that happen. The Coens, with their devilishly inventive minds, could certainly have made that work. Sure, it’s been pointed out that generally in the Coens’ work the characters get their comeuppance, but I really feel that in this case the magic of finding a way to have Lundegaard undeservingly stumble his way out of consequences would overcome the disgust in allowing him to get away with it in the first place. If you’ve seen it, think of Match Point and how brilliantly Woody Allen gets his murderer out of it and how once it happens it becomes obvious that it was designed that way from the beginning. Fargo could very plausibly have been Match Point before Match Point was Match Point, but it wasn’t. And I guess I wish it was.
Still, I have to say that the joys of the film definitely outweigh the criticisms. Great movie. In terms of the general movie-going audience, perhaps the Coens’ best known film. But it’s not their best film, and having not seen their entire catalog I don’t think I can put it any higher than fifth in my personal list of Coen films. And please note that to say this is the opposite of damning with faint praise.