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Dissecting the Classics – Fargo

September 8, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

Last year, September was dedicated to the films of Stanley Kubrick. This year I wanted to dedicate it to two extraordinary talents whose films I have yet to cover on this column. Welcome to Coen Brothers month, where four of their best and most enduring films will be given the spotlight.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.


Wide Release Date: March 8, 1996
Directed By: Joel Coen
Written By: Joel and Ethan Coen
Produced By: Ethan Coen
Cinematography By: Roger Deakins
Edited By: Joel and Ethan Coen
Music By: Carter Burwell
Production Company: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment & Working Title Pictures
Distributed By: Gramercy Pictures
Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson
William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard
Steve Buscemi as Carl Showalter
Peter Stormare as Gaear Grimsrud
Harve Presnell as Wade Gustafson

What Do We All Know?

Fargo was released in early 1996 and received immediate critical acclaim, topping many Best of the Year lists and making a very solid dent at the box office considering its status as an independent film. It won the Academy Awards for Best Leading Actress and Best Screenplay (and was flat out robbed of its best picture win), made AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Films list just a year later, and was selected for preservation in 2006, one of only six films to be selected in their first qualifying year. It’s one of the most critically acclaimed films of the last thirty years, and arguably the Coens’ best known work (certainly for a decade).

So with all that praise, one can probably assume that Fargo is probably a great movie, something most people seem to agree on, even if they haven’t seen it. It’s one of my favorites, a perpetual member of the A+ club even if I do have a couple minor nitpicks. When I decided to do a month dedicated to the work of the Coens, this was an easy choice to start with. What makes it click with me so much?

What Went Right?

It’s easy to look back with hindsight and state that it’s obvious that Fargo was going to be a great movie; Joel and Ethan Coen are two of the finest filmmakers in history with a resume that speaks for itself. They wrote and edited this film, with Joel directing and Ethan producing, which is an incredible amount of work for two people, but also results in a carefully constructed film that is as close to their vision as possible. And you’ve got Roger Deakins, who is probably the greatest cinematographer of the modern age and always makes films better with his perfect lighting and framing, including some gorgeous, foreboding shots of the snow-covered Minnesota landscape. All three of these guys are Oscar winners, so yeah, it’s a good place to start. The film is expertly crafted and I feel that deserves recognition first.

The not at all true story really laid the foundation for what the Coens are famous for. We see their embrace of absurdism as a philosophy, their interest in crimes gone wrong, the prevalence of wacky bit characters, and a reliance on putting normal people into unusual, often dangerous situations. We see a bit of unusual structure, at first focusing only on the inciting incident of Jerry hiring two criminals to kidnap his wife so his father in law can pay the ransom. It isn’t until half an hour into the movie, when that plan has gotten complications from the death of a cop, that we are finally introduced to our protagonist. In that way the film telegraphs later Coen films where it isn’t often clear who is the main character until after you finish the movie.

When Marge Gunderson arrives, she immediately steals the movie with her quiet charisma, quick thinking and endearing “Minnesota Nice” personality. She is patient and thorough with her investigation, which is impressive considering she’s deep into her pregnancy. And dealing with unhelpful witnesses who give her very little information to go on, either through deliberate obfuscation or sheer obtuseness. It makes her journey seem like a massive obstacle despite the contained setting, and she composes herself with flying colors in the film’s climax. Marge is often cited as one of the most likable protagonists and film and I am inclined to agree.

Marge’s niceness, as well as her husband and the residents of Brainerd and Fargo, is a stark contrast to the film’s antagonists. While this is often played for laughs, the smiles and lack of vulgarity help to convey a theme; evil has walked into this peaceful society and they can’t comprehend it. Jerry’s scheme is baffling in its complexity, its inefficiency and its sheer selfishness, putting his wife and mother of his child at risk just to deal with his pathetic inferiority complex. Buscemi and Stormare are obtrusive with their aggressive obnoxiousness and threatening silence, respectively. Gaear is a monster who attacks a helpless woman and puts his partner through a woodchipper because they annoy him. And that kind of wickedness is something Marge can’t quite understand in the end, the purest statement of the film’s absurdist philosophy. How do we make sense of the senseless?

What Went Wrong?

While Fargo accomplishes so much in its 96 minutes and is so good that flaws can be glossed over, I do have a couple of nitpicks. Buscemi and Macy are almost too good at their jobs, occasionally making the movie grate on the nerves, especially on first viewing. But the big one is the Mike Yanagita subplot, which barely qualifies as such. This is just three scenes that add nothing to the story, we just get to watch Marge pointlessly endure this creepy wreck of a liar. It definitely showcases her ability to remain calm and decisive under pressure, but we already know that. This has always stuck out like a sore thumb to me and it’s a real shame.

And In Summary…

Despite a small blemish, Fargo is a wonderful film. It balances the dark with the wholesome, the violence with the comedy, and the absurd with the familiar. The Coen Brothers made a masterpiece, a film that works well as commercial entertainment and artistic expression. Frances McDormand is almost without peer as a hero, while Stormare, Buscemi and Macy play wicked men that we want to see fall. It’s a movie worth watching over and over.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas, The Avengers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Jaws, The Omen, The Incredibles, Life of Brian, Escape From New York, Independence Day, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Hook, Men in Black, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Double Indemnity, Lethal Weapon

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. I haven’t watched as many movies lately because Michael Ornelas has me watching Samurai Jack for our column, which I am loving. I did see Searching and strongly recommend it.