November 20, 2013

Fargo: A Thrilling, Farcical Success

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After Joel and Ethan Coen released their debut film, Blood Simple, in 1984, fans and critics alike questioned whether the brothers could ever top a film of such brilliance. Miller’s Crossing, Raising Arizona and Barton Fink were all undeniably entertaining and successful, but, to many, they still could not compete with the absurdist humor and outlandish plot of the Coens’ first picture.

It took them twelve years, but Joel and Ethan Coen finally did it with Fargo, the incredible 1996 feature that secured the directing-writing-producing duo amongst modern film greats. Fargo embraces’s best elements, including its quirky dialogue, farcical plot and shocking bursts of violence, but adds its own eerie film noir aesthetics and excellent cast to make an exceptional film.

The film (based on a true story) introduces us to Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a car salesman in Minneapolis struggling with debt and in desperate need of money. He hires two hitmen, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), to kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrud), in the hopes that he can extract $1 billion from his intimidating, wealthy father-in-law (Harve Presnell), pay the two criminals their $80,000 ransom and keep the rest for himself. This strategic plan seems convenient and infallible to Jerry, until the embarrassingly unprofessional Showalter and Grimsrud get caught up in a string of homicides — all because they forgot to put license plates on their stolen 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera.

Buscemi and Stormare are hilariously entertaining as the anxious, jittery Showalter and stoic, almost-mute Grimsrud. “Woah, Daddy!” the terrified Showalter repeatedly exclaims after Grimsrud shoots a police officer, yet by the end of the film he’s killing everyone in sight. The two men are the epitome of criminal satire in the film: in one early scene they heatedly argue over pancakes and prostitutes, yet by the end we’re somehow expected to be afraid of them.

Frances McDormand is the star of this movie as Marge Gunderson, the world’s perkiest police chief. Wearing a silly winter hat with ear flaps, so pregnant that she can barely stand, Marge’s two major concerns are capturing the culprits behind the homicides and finding the nearest buffet. Her strange Minnesotan-Canadian accent and idiosyncratic jargon — “yah!” — make Marge the quirkiest of all the film’s strange characters. But as much as Fargo likes to poke fun at her, Marge is the film’s only loveable character, with her naïve assertion that “there’s more to life than money” and sweet relationship with duck-painting husband Norm Gunderson. She also does her job very well, putting her fellow officers to shame in her singular pursuit for criminals.

As if the film wasn’t farcical enough, we realize that the brains behind the entire ordeal is the piteous, “you’re darned tootin’,” Jerry Lundegaard. Macy gives a perfect portrayal of Jerry as the nervous businessman who’s afraid of everyone — from his assertive father-in-law Wade Gustafson to Marge Gunderson. Wide-eyed and stuttering, he’s a pathetic excuse for a mastermind, and the film loves to push Jerry into various situations as we amusedly watch him convince himself he can still somehow get away with the plan.

Fargo pushes the boundaries of storytelling as far as it possibly can. What starts as a supposedly deathless kidnapping leads to a string of needless homicides far beyond Jerry’s original plan. In fact, the film almost becomes a game to see how quickly everything spirals out of control: murder springs up all over the place in violent bursts, from the police officer in the beginning of the film to the peppy garage attendant towards the end. “This was supposed to be a no rough stuff type deal!” Jerry says in response to the initial homicides. No rough stuff? As if the Coens could let that happen.

Fargo is a violent and twisted road down into chaos, yet still keeps us laughing in all of its outlandishness. Somehow, the film’s disparate elements combine into one thrilling crime-comedy beyond what even Coen-lovers could have expected. Leave it to the brothers to blow everything out of proportion — and still make a great movie out of it.