This review was originally written as part of my USA Road Trip series for French Toast Sunday.
Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is a bit down on his luck. He’s run up some pretty substantial debts, and will be in trouble for fraudulent affairs any day now, as soon as the bank realise the cars he has been claiming against don’t actually exist. The solution to his problem? Arrange for his wife to be kidnapped, so Jerry can collect on the ransom from his wealthy father-in-law. Unfortunately the miscreants hired to do the kidnapping, Carl and Gaear (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare), bungle the escape, leaving enough clues for the police chief, a heavily pregnant Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), to begin tracking everyone down and sorting this mess out.
First things first, I’m fully aware that the title of the film refers to a city in North Dakota where Jerry first meets Carl and Gaear, but that most of the film actually takes place in Minnesota. However, North Dakota isn’t exactly rife with movies that are set there, and I didn’t particularly want to watch Leprechaun, especially because that was actually shot on a Los Angeles backlot. Secondly, the fact that the TV show Fargo has just started is just one giant coincidence, as I planned this film a little while ago, and haven’t seen the show. Whatever channel it’s on is one I don’t get, so depending on reviews I’ll be sure to check it out once it hits DVD, just like I did with Breaking Bad, and like I’ll probably do with True Detective. OK, back to the film.
I love the Coen brothers, and of their work this is, at the time of writing, my favourite of their films. I’m not saying it’s their best film, because I’m not even sure what that means, let alone how to quantify it, but when the time comes for me to pick the one I like the most, then that pick goes to Fargo. You see, I’m really drawn to great, fully developed characters that are really embodied by the actors playing them, and that is one of the key strengths to Fargo. William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard is potentially one of my favourite performances of all time, and it annoys me greatly that he was not only snubbed the Lead Actor nomination (he was up for Supporting Actor) but that he lost that to Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire. Admittedly Gooding is very entertaining in the film, but his performance isn’t half as accomplished as Macy’s. Jerry is a guy who should be very easy to hate. Every mistake he has made is entirely his own fault, he thinks he’s much smarter than he is and for heaven’s sake he commissions his own wife’s kidnapping. Yet Macy imbues a loveable, hopeful quality to him that makes you want everything to turn out well, despite how much of a pillock he is. Maybe it’s the accent; it’s almost impossible to believe that somebody so inane and conniving could talk in such a sing-song manner. Macy is great at playing wimpy, eternally disappointing characters – see also The Cooler, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, to name a few – but Jerry could well be his most pathetic, if only for the fact that he seems unable to see how bleak everything is, and is always striving for that way out that just plain doesn’t exist. And the scene where he takes out all his aggression on an ice scraper, only to forlornly trudge over, pick it up and continue scraping? Amazing. His world just keeps falling out from underneath him, but he keeps on going regardless.
As great as Macy is, he shines even brighter when stacked alongside the rest of the cast in scenes of conversation. Buscemi and Stormare are a wonderful odd couple – Buscemi’s Carl won’t shut up, Stormare’s Gaear only speaks when he wants pancakes or unguent – and much of the comedy comes from the interactions these two have with the alien states they are visiting. However, the real shining star – other than Macy, of course – is the Best Actress winning Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson. Marge doesn’t show up until a third of the way into the film – once the plan has been undertaken and started to unravel – and essentially she comes in to clean up the mess the boys before her have made. It’s clear she may be the only intelligent member of the Brainerd police department – her colleage Lou certainly isn’t winning brightest bulb in the drawer any time soon – but really she’s just a normal person, in a loving and healthy relationship with her husband, Norm Son-of-a-Gunderson (John Carroll Lynch).
Were I compiling a list of my Top 10 Screen Married Couples, the Gundersons would be my number 1 by a considerable margin. They are that most wonderful of things – happy with the lives they lead. We’re introduced to Marge when she’s awoken at an ungodly hour by the phone ringing, detailing a shooting that has caused the kidnapping to become more evident to the police than was originally intended. She has to attend to the scene of the crime, and her husband insists that she get a decent breakfast beforehand, so he gets up to fix her some eggs. However, just before he gets up he hocks a very phlegmy sounding spitball from his throat, but we don’t see that, just the expression on Marge’s face. It’s a familiar, loving, that’s-my-Norm smile, and it sums up everything I love about these two. They’re so comfortable with the lives they lead, be it Norm’s far-from-exciting hobby of painting postage stamp artwork or Marge taking a detour from the investigation to go pick up some works for Norm, these are just two very normal people, and I love them for it.
There is so much I love about Fargo that I could probably keep going for days talking about this film; the description the hookers give of Carl and Gaear – “Kinda funny lookin’, more than most people even,” may be the best description for Buscemi’s face in history. I love the quarrel Jerry has with an irate customer over his new car’s Trucoat, and how the customer obviously isn’t normally much of a swearer, but he’s so agitated he has to force the “Fucking liar” out of his mouth, stuttering over it as he goes. The kidnapping scene is a delight, full of slapstick humour and unexpected turns of events. Jerry practicing the phone call he’s going to make to his father-in-law (Harve Presnell), plain forgetting that he’ll probably have to go through his secretary. And the single moment of Jerry popping open the boot of his car makes me laugh every time.
What I really love about the film is that it’s clear that, whilst for us it’s an interesting and eventful story, for Marge this is just another week on the job. She regularly has to get up at this time and sort out something like this. When she meets up with an old school friend she even describes the case as having “not a whole lot to discuss.” Every aspect of her life is lived in and familiar, and she’s just fine with that. It makes one of her final speeches all the more meaningful – there really is more to life than money – and don’t you know that Marge may have it all worked out after all.
Choose film 10/10