Fargo: One of the Best Coen Brothers Films

Frances McDormand in Fargo. Courtesy of MGM.

The Coen brothers get back to basics with Fargo by going back to their home state of Minnesota for one of the best films in their career.

Fargo earned seven Oscar nominations, winning Best Actress (Frances McDormand) and Original Screenplay. The film’s other nominations were for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (William H. Macy), Cinematography, and Editing. AFI would later honor the film in their initial 100 Years…100 Movies list and 100 Years…100 Laughs. Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) would be honored as the #33 hero in the 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains list. Who would have thought in 1996 that the film would later spawn an anthology series with at least five seasons on FX?

The film’s opening titles say that it is a true story. But is it? William H. Macy describes his conversation with the Coen brothers three weeks into the film and they told him they made it all up. I suppose it is always possible that aspects of the film may be true in the 1987-set film but again, this could just be classic Coen humor in action. Well, the woodchipper incident could possibly be true. The Brainerd Dispatch was quite certain after Oscar nominations that the murders are fictional–at least fictional for the city’s history. Regardless, it makes for a tightly paced 98 minute black comedy.

The film’s events take place in Minnesota back in 1987. As with other films, they change the names but everything else remains the same. At least, this is how the opening titles describe the film. Anyway, car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) has massive debts. He hires a pair of criminals, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, Jean, so that he can collect the ransom from her father, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell). Lundegaard’s plans are to use this money to pay off his debts. As one can probably surmise, things do not go as planned because they kill a state trooper and pair of bystanders along the way.

Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson starts investigating the case. Her investigation leads right back to the car dealership. Both Jerry Lundegaard and Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis) plead ignorance. Meanwhile, Wade wants to drop off the ransom money himself. Maybe he’s starting to connect the dots on his own? In any event, it’s the end of the line for him. Outside of Marge, nothing ends well for anyone. People are killed, arrested, or fed into a woodchipper.

Opening up about filming in Minnesota Nice, the Coens described growing up in Minnesota as being “Siberia except you have family restaurants there.” Despite that, they utilized the Twin Cities area for filming. Well, except for when the weather didn’t cooperate.

In terms of production, it is closer to that of Barton Fink than The Hudsucker Proxy in that they’re working with a smaller crew. As such, it’s a change of pace for cinematographer Roger Deakins, who earned himself another Oscar nomination. The Coens and Deakins planned out their visual style during pre-production. Obviously, things could end up changing when the cameras start rolling. The other thing about working with Deakins is that he just makes their films better. Whether it is a lens choice or something else, Deakins joining their team of collaborators was one of the best days in cinematic history. The longer lens choices restrains the Coens in a way that didn’t happen earlier in their career. In this instance, Deakins is using an Arriflex BL-4 with Eastman film stock.

Deakins somehow has a way of making even the dullest days and blandest locations in Minnesota look beautiful in Fargo. It’s just the way that he works the camera, even when you cannot tell where the ground and sky meet along the horizon. You’d think it was always this bleak in Minnesota! Okay, so North Dakota has to take some of the credit. It’s what happens when the Twin Cities weather does not cooperate! That Deakins is using natural light whenever possible just says even more about how the film can take something so dull and bland and make it look beautiful.

This was my first rewatch of the film in quite some time. I’ve been to the Twin Cities area twice since initially watching the film in the 1990s. To my recollection, I don’t think I heard anyone speaking with the Minnesota Nice accent or using phrases such as “Yah, you betcha” or just “Yah.” Come to think of it, the clothing at the Minnesota gift shops at the Mall of America weren’t even capitalizing on the film’s phrases as one might think they would. I asked them if they had any fun shirts that they would recommend when I was there in September. The shirts they suggested were fine but nothing like the trio of shirts that I saw on display at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

It’s hard to say where Fargo sits in the Coen Brothers filmography. It is one of four Best Picture-nominated films with No Country for Old Men being their only Oscar-winning Best Picture. Take away the Weinstein factor with The English Patient and Fargo might have won Best Picture that year. We’ll never truly know what could have been–yah, you betcha.

SCREENWRITERS: Joel & Ethan Coen
CAST: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare

Gramercy Pictures released Fargo in theaters on March 8, 1996. Grade: 5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.