The combined creative force of the Coen Brothers has produced multiple masterpieces over the years, including illustrious works like The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men. However, their magnum opus might just be this 1996 crime comedy that managed to become one of the most beloved cult-classics of that decade. 25 years and a critically acclaimed series adaptation later, what makes Fargo so great?
For starters, the iconic disclaimer itself. Posited as a “true crime” film by the Coen Brothers, Fargo is based on certain real events to an extent, but most of the details have been fictionalised and altered. According to the brothers, this was a subversive experiment to toy with the voyeuristic expectations of the audience. At its core, Fargo is an exploration of the human condition’s inherent absurdity, and they felt that the only way viewers would believe the bizarre on-screen events is by claiming they actually happened. To be fair, they do come clear in the end credits when the standard fictitious person disclaimer flashes before our eyes. Joel Coen said in an interview:
“We weren’t interested in that kind of fidelity. The basic events are the same as in the real case, but the characterisations are fully imagined … If an audience believes that something’s based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept.”
Anyone who is familiar with Arthur Miller’s famous play Death of a Salesman will immediately notice the similarities (as well as the aberrations) when they watch Fargo. The film presents the unique case of Jerry Lundegaard (played by William H. Macy), an unimpressive salesman who cannot figure out how to fix his financial situation and keeps making matters worse for himself and everyone around him. Unlike the play’s protagonist, Willy Loman, who ends up killing himself when he realises his own impotence, Jerry does not give up easily. He hires two thugs – Carl Showalter (played by Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his own wife in order to extort money from his wealthy father-in-law. However, everything that could go wrong does go wrong.
One of the most obvious merits of Fargo is Roger Deakins’ cinematography, perfectly capturing the bleakness of the vast landscape as well as the intimate tension between the characters. In order to maintain the atmospheric anxiety, Deakins places the camera in the middle of conversations because it establishes a deeper psychological connection with the audience. Contrary to the film’s title, most of the shooting took place in Minnesota. They were forced to be flexible because of the unusually less snowfall that year, and some scenes even required artificial snow. It is interesting to note that Roderick Jaynes received an Academy Award nomination for editing for his work on Fargo. In reality, it’s just an alias created by the Coen Brothers so that people wouldn’t think they do most of the work in their productions.
The Coen Brothers’ unique brand of black humour works especially well in Fargo because of the duality of our own perception. The Minnesota residents are cheerful, and their accent is even referred to as the “Minnesota nice”, but the undeniable evidence of a violent layer buried underneath the snow creates the right balance between the hilarious and the horrifying, transforming it into a spectacle of beautiful absurdity (like the visions of red blood on the white snow). In addition to the strong visual narrative, the Coen Brothers’ use their scriptwriting talents to perfect the storytelling method. They let the audience make their own inferences from subtle conversational revelations and use the legacy of violence as subtextual symbols. The result is a masterpiece that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats, never taking it for granted and continuously shocking them with charming nonchalance.
Frances McDormand is brilliant as the pregnant police chief named Marge Gunderson, a role for which she won her first Academy Award for Best Actress. Donning a wig (without which she could not do the “Minnesota nice” accent), she embarks on a quest to find the perpetrators of the gruesome homicides in the area. Due to her cute demeanour, the film almost makes us underestimate her, but she is highly intelligent and extremely competent when it comes to her job. Instead of wordy explorations, the Coen Brothers develop her characterisation and try to shed more light on her marriage with her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch) by highlighting their caring actions.
Despite the obvious violations of family values and human depravity, Fargo insists that humanity exists alongside such darkness. It does not ruminate on the carnage we have witnessed. Instead, it dreams of the future, just like Marge and Norm think of the child they are expecting. Fargo answers the warning of death with the promise of life.