Fargo (1996) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

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


About garethrhodes

Full-time lover of all things creative.
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17 Responses to Fargo (1996) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

  1. Mr Rumsey says:

    I completely agree. Perhaps only No Country beats it, although I love so many of their films…

  2. filmfunkel says:

    A classic. The Coen brothers are great at telling stories that, no matter how shocking, still have that lingering could-really-happen sense to them. : D

    • garethrhodes says:

      It surprised me how much warmth they managed to get into this, amid the shockingly violent outbursts. Down, in part, to Frances McDormand and her brilliant performance. Good to have your input.

  3. Great write-up! I loved the TV series adaptation, but it can’t be compared to the greatness of this film. And even though their filmography is really impressive, I agree with you about this being their best work to date. Also, McDormand is absolutely phenomenal as Marge.

  4. Jay says:

    This is one of my absolute favourites. I haven’t seen teh show and can’t really imagine appreciating it the way I do the film.

    • garethrhodes says:

      I can see why it’s a favourite, as it has so much going for it. I much prefer the power of cinema over TV, although there are some amazing things happening in TV right now. I think Fargo is one of them.

  5. Dude the cleaner says:

    I love this film it is a great film noir. Brutal as hell but good. I also love the series. Nice review.

  6. Derrick Carter says:

    Love this movie so much! It’s among the Coen Brothers’ best for me. Peter Stormare really cracks me up in this for some reason. You should also give the TV series a look if you can. It actually holds up as a different story full of dark comedy and true crime (with Billy Bob Thornton playing one of TV’s most hilarious/terrifying villains).

    • garethrhodes says:

      I started watching the TV series today, as it happens. Three episodes in and I’m impressed. Billy Bob is killing it…and most of the other cast members.

  7. Chris Evans says:

    Love a good Coen Bros. film and Fargo is definitely one to watch, Steve Buscemi and William H. Macy are excellent as always. Haven’t seen the series yet but plan to check it out.

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