Fargo (1996) Directed by Joel Coen. With Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare.
Officially directed by Joel Coen, with brother Ethan on co-writing and production duties, Fargo is a violent crime drama-thriller, told with the brothers’ signature sense of jet-black humour. The plot is kick-started by William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard, who hires two men (Buscemi and Stormare) to kidnap his wife in order for him to claim the ransom from his father-in-law. Things go a little awry, which draws Frances McDormand’s tenacious and heavily pregnant Sheriff Marge Gunderson into the tangled plot.
Aside from being a brilliant film, Fargo’s success has recently spawned a successful, critically acclaimed television series, which many will now consider to be the definitive telling of the story. For those people, I would encourage seeking out the original film, as there is so much that makes it worthwhile. Outside of the main narrative thread of the bungled crime job, there is much woven into the subtext. Through Frances McDormand’s excellent performance, we have an honest, loveable character to root for – yet we somehow feel complicit in the wrongdoing and are given opportunities to empathise with the plights of some of the more morally dubious characters.
There is something cartoonish about Steve Buscemi’s two-bit criminal here. Bits of his performance could be straight out of a Hanna Barbera production, yet don’t let that fool you. Amid the comic delivery, there’s a dangerous lunatic. That’s another rare thing about the Coen’s – they serve us these absolute whack-job characters, then somehow make them appealing. As Buscemi’s partner in crime, Peter Stromare is much less the ‘comedy gangster‘. Imposing in stature and not the most talkative, we feel Stormare is the real threat here (imagine Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men but with less scary hair).
William H. Macy’s increasingly nervous character has perhaps the most boo-hiss-ability, yet even he gains a small fraction of our empathy as he goes from one disaster to the next.
In a film so rich with fine performances, Fargo also boasts the sublime photography of the great Roger Deakins – a long running collaborator with the Coen’s. Deakins captures weight and mystery with his striking depictions of the icy landscapes of Minnesota. There is something so matter-of-fact, yet so hauntingly beautiful about his shots . With so many colourful characters intertwining throughout the drama, the film also serves up a semi-homely look, amid the shocking flashes of violence that occur regularly throughout.
With striking visuals and a great script served by a collection of excellent performances, Fargo is one of the Coen brothers’ best films to-date. Considering their impressive catalogue, that is really saying something. 5/5