Why I Love… #39: Fargo

39Year: 1996

Director: Joel Coen

Stars: Frances McDormand (Marge Gunderson), Steve Buscemi (Carl Showalter), William H Macy (Jerry Lundegaard), Harve Presnell (Wade Gustafson), Peter Stormare (Gaear Grimsrud), John Carroll Lynch (Norm Gunderson), Steve Park (Mike Yanagita)

Genre: Crime Thriller / Comedy

“They got this guy, in Germany. Fritz Something-or-other. Or is it? Maybe it’s Werner. Anyway, he’s got this theory, you wanna test something, you know, scientifically – how the planets go round the sun, what sunspots are made of, why the water comes out of the tap – well, you gotta look at it. But sometimes you look at it, your looking changes it. Ya can’t know the reality of what happened, or what would’ve happened if you hadn’t-a stuck in your own goddamn schnozz. So there is no “what happened”? Not in any sense that we can grasp, with our puny minds. Because our minds… our minds get in the way. Looking at something changes it. They call it the “Uncertainty Principle”. Sure, it sounds screwy, but even Einstein says the guy’s on to something.”

The above is a quote, but not from this movie, which has plenty of quotable lines of its own. It’s from The Man Who Wasn’t There, another Coen Brothers film. One of my favourites of theirs (see Why I Love… #19). It’s delivered with expertise by the always wonderful Tony Shalhoub. But it applies perfectly to Fargo. In fact, it applies perfectly to a number of their movies, not least No Country For Old Men. But especially, for me, to Fargo. Because my looking at this movie, my looking changed it. Right in front of my eyes.

I first saw Fargo when I was about fifteen or sixteen. It hadn’t been out long then, and it was one of those titles people asked you about. Like The Shawshank Redemption before it was universally praised. “Have you seen it?” “Have you heard about this movie?” My love of film was in its infancy then (it’s still barely out of its teens), but I was eager to digest as much as I could, so I got hold of a copy on VHS. I can’t remember how; it’s an 18 certificate movie, and I certainly wasn’t that. But nevertheless, I got it, I watched it, I loved it.

But I didn’t for a second think it was a comedy.

I’d arrived at Fargo following a number of straight-faced thrillers. Se7enThe Usual Suspects. These were serious films, not comedies. Fargo, a comedy? I mean, how could it be? With Carter Burwell’s delicately malevolent score, with so much blood spilled, with its upfront instance that “THIS IS A TRUE STORY”? I was captivated by the tragic menace of the events that had unfurled. How naive I was! If it wasn’t for Mike Yanagita, I might’ve carried on believing this way. Weeks later, reflecting on Fargo, I caught myself wondering “well, what the hell did that guy that Margie goes for a meal with have to do with anything?” So I got that VHS out again. And, with a more skeptical outlook, I watched Fargo change in front of me.

Suddenly that why-so-serious score had a glint to it, a knowing lilt. Whilst the rest of the picture wore a Cheshire cat grin. Fargo is one of the most exceptional comedies I’ve ever seen. But it all depends on how you look at it.

I’m glad I got the joke, because there’s so much to enjoy here. The Coens’ often draw smart observations from mannerisms and speech patterns. Fargo is a perfect example of this, from the Scandinavian twang haunting the characters’ voices, to the stammers and inflections in William H Macy’s performance as Jerry Lundegaard. The Coens notoriously write these oratory pit stops directly into the script. They’re that precise. It pays dividends. Not only does it instill knowing humanity in the characters, but it sets a rhythm. Soon the film is humming along.

Picking a standout performance is tough, as largely everyone here is putting in career-best performances. Frances McDormand’s heavily pregnant cop Marge Gunderson is a warm joy, and she deservedly picked up an Academy Award for her work. Elsewhere, Steve Buscemi, a man whose career is resplendent with highlights, has rarely bettered put-upon chatterbox Carl Showalter. William H Macy fought for the role of Jerry Lundegaard and he likewise makes it his own, taking those aforementioned mannerisms laid out on the page and turning them into something wholly naturalistic.

In terms of plotting, the Coens have rarely been tighter. Fargo winds itself in to its grizzly conclusion, yet never openly takes the obvious or expected route. Bad fortune haunts every character but Marge, as the brothers condemn them for their idiocy. Many of their films make hay out of stupidity (Burn After ReadingO Brother Where Art Thou?) – that they do it with such whip-smart intelligence raises their work up above the likes of, say, the Farrelly Brothers. Underlining the tragedy as much as the comedy is crucial to this success. Actions have dire consequences, and if the characters are blind to them, the audience isn’t. It’s how an unassuming teenage boy watches Fargo and doesn’t see the gags first time around.

Fargo was, in a way, my initiation into a darker streak of comedy, and ultimately when I look for laughs now, it’s the likes of Fargo‘s twisted grimace that I tend to search for. It’s certainly there in recent British highlight Sightseers.

The Coens’ snowbound classic is now ingrained in me. I’ve watched it enough to know virtually all the dialogue as it’s coming. To look forward to spotting the poor red-Parka-wearing victim who is incorrectly billed as Prince in the end credits. But also to enjoying the craft here too. Fargo is beautifully shot. The Coens take time to allow Roger Deakins to frame some elegant compositions (he is the most dependable cinematographer working today).  All in all, Fargo is a perfect blend.

I have a little tradition at this time of year (I’m writing this on December 30th 2012) of watching a number of snowy modern classics that have little connection to the festive period. The Shining. The Thing. Let The Right One InFargo is a given. Any excuse to revisit, really. And if you haven’t been convinced by Fargo yet, take another look. You never know, your looking may change it.

15 thoughts on “Why I Love… #39: Fargo

  1. Curiosity prompts me to ask, “Do you watch “The Shining” alone, at night?”

    It’s one of the most scariest movies I’ve ever seen.

      1. It’s one of my favorites too, but I can’t watch it at night and sleep afterwards. I keep seeing those twin girls in the hallway!

  2. Nice review! I agree with it all completely, and had the same experience. I’d just turned 18 then, was lapping up treasures like Se7en, Usual Suspects, Lost Highway. I caught Fargo on the opening weekend of the Picture House with my dad, who still quotes it all the time. We’ll frequently end conversations with “yah” or “yoooouu betcha”. In my mid teens I’d been collecting the Coen’s work on ex-rental VHS – and loved them all. I remember loving the dark suspense of Fargo, likening it to Blood Simple. Later, its lasting wit slowly shone through – like all their films, it feels alive with each viewing, and ready to become whatever it wants to be. I’ve actually been going to my parents house to watch the TV series with them each week, and we’re all loving every minute. Its great fun spotting the various homages – the ducks in Lou’s Diner being like Norm Gunderson’s stamps and house decor. The guy scratching off the letters on the office window like in Hudsucker Proxy. The pair of hitmen with one being quiet – but this time because he’s deaf. Awesome stuff. Are you watching the series, and if so what do you think? Loved Blue Ruin today by the way, was great fun and made me jolt a couple of times.

    1. I am enjoying the TV series – although I’m finding Martin Freeman by far the weakest link. Definitely feels like it’s going for the corner of the market vacated by Breaking Bad, and seems like it may be up to the task.

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