Format: VHS from personal collection on big ol’ television.
In Fargo, Frances McDormand plays the seven month pregnant police chief of Brainerd, MN, Marge Gunderson. I say with absolutely no shame (and knowing that almost everyone who reads this will agree with me) that Marge Gunderson is one of my absolute, all-time favorite film characters. I could seriously watch her all day. There’s a part of me that’s sad that Margie only appeared in a single film, and a part of me that rejoices at this, since the character never got the opportunity to become stale and silly. No, Marge is great where she is, forever pregnant, forever looking like a rube on the surface, and forever being a damn fine police officer.
The marvelous thing about Fargo is that it excels in two of the most important aspects of any film. First, it has a great story. It’s complicated enough to be interesting, but simple enough to follow easily on a first watch. Things get complex in stages, and each stage makes a certain amount of sense. We don’t go into exhaustive and unnecessary details; we get what we need to follow along and make sense of the events that unfold. And since this is a movie that involves any number of shady deals, underhanded actions, betrayals and criminal acts, it’s naturally interesting.
Second, and I’d argue more critical to the ultimate success of the film, Fargo gives life to some truly wonderful characters. Marge is merely the best of them, but not in any respect the only character here worth seeing. The characters here are real people. They’re not perfect. They have realistic quirks. They talk like real people (or at least real people from Minnesota). These are more than simply movie characters. There’s a real sense that they have lived lives and have a history. It’s a tremendously rare thing.
I should mention the actual plot here. Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is in deep financial trouble of an undisclosed nature. He’s taken out a massive loan on a number of cars that he doesn’t actually possess. Desperate for cash, he arranges a plan to have his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrud) kidnapped, with plans to get the ransom from her wealthy father, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) His kidnappers are the talkative and excited Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and the taciturn and almost emotionless Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare). Jerry is hopeful that a real estate deal might give him the necessary cash, but that falls through, so the kidnapping goes as planned. His hope is to give the kidnappers $40,000 of the ransom and keep $960,000 to pay off his outstanding debts.
The kidnapping goes awry when Carl and Gaear are pulled over on the highway for driving a car with dealer plates and no evident license. Since Jean Lundegaard is in the back seat, Gaear takes control of the situation by killing the cop and then hunting down and killing two passers-by who saw everything. This triple homicide brings us the involvement of Marge Gunderson, who truly makes this entire film work. Yeah, I know I’m gushing a little bit, but again, Marge Gunderson and her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch) are a pleasure to see on the screen.
So what makes Marge work so well? It’s that she’s been treated as a real person when it would have been incredibly simple to make her into a caricature. In fact, that’s one of the real joys of seeing this film for the first time. When Marge does appear, she has all of the mannerisms we might expect with a mildly dippy hausfrau. And then we get the chance to see her on the crime scene, and our estimation of her changes immediately. Based on the layout of the scene where the two passers-by were killed, Marge looks around, sees the bodies and the layout, and immediately pieces together what we just saw logically and accurately. And then she takes a moment to prevent herself from throwing up due to morning sickness. It’s great, because we immediately buy into her as a person. She’s suddenly real, and while there’s still a temptation to think of her as a rube because of her accent, we can’t deny that she’s smart and a really good cop.
One of the other pleasures of a film like Fargo is that it was created in the expert hands of the Coen Brothers, who aren’t in the business of making bad films. Fargo blends their two styles. There are genuine comic moments here that are as funny as anything in a film like Raising Arizona, but the film as a whole isn’t a comedy, and the crimes that are committed are really pretty terrible. It’s also evident that Gaear Grimsrud is sort of the precursor to what would eventually become Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men.
It had been several years since I’d seen Fargo, and it’s as good now as it was the last time I saw it. Even better, it’s as good now as the first time I saw it. Films like this one, nearly perfect in every respect, don’t come along very often. I’d forgotten just how good it is and how much I enjoy it. It’s one to put back into rotation more often—I shouldn’t go four or five years without spending time with Marge again.
Why to watch Fargo: It’s pretty much perfect start to finish.
Why not to watch: You’re an idiot.
Right there with you - it's a near-perfect film in my book. And hell yes on the characters: the high school friend, Marge's stamp-painting husband, even the dumb girls in the bar, not to mention that it has about four If the best movie characters in any film. Some folks seem to get irritated by Macy here and that just baffles me - it's far and away his best role, and such a tragic-comic character. My favorite Coen bros flick, and it just gets better with every viewing.ReplyDelete
I came very close to a writing one more paragraph. If I had, it would have been about Macy. There's a reason his career took off after this film.Delete
Jerry Lundegaard is another great character--I imagine you're including him in your group of four. He's the perfect loser. Nothing works for him and he's constantly under the shadow of his father-in-law. And yet he tries so desperately to hold it together and keep his emotions in check.
There's that great moment after Jean has been kidnapped and Jerry is working himself up to call Wade and tell him what has happened. He's gotten himself into a false emotional frenzy and he calls only to be put on hold. It's funny and tragic, and Macy does that so well.
Yeah, I can see how people might be frustrated with Jerry as a character, but in no way to I see any cracks in Macy's performance.
Marge is so memorable, isn't she? McDormand plays her masterfully. I agree, Fargo never gets old.ReplyDelete
Yah sure you-betcha, I agree with everything you said. This is one of my most-quoted films in every day life, and whenever I'm asked to describe someone's appearance I tend to begin with "kinda funny-looking". Hell, my pseudonym for the So You Think You Can Review contest last year was Your Accomplice in the Wood Chipper, which was the original name idea for my blog!ReplyDelete
You're absolutely correct that Marge is the heart of this film, even though she doesn't show up until about 30 mins in. The whole film is just flawless. Love it. Great review.
I'm not surprised that everyone seems to feel about Marge the way I do. She really is one of the great film characters of...ever.Delete
@Jay--I'd forgotten you named yourself that.
We really need to give some more love to Shep Proudfoot. That dude fucking cracks me up, even if he is mentally imbalanced. Also: one of the best scenes for me is the parking garage, from Wade demanding shit to the look on Buscemi's face and the exchange when he leaves the garage. Basically, everything involving the garage attendant.ReplyDelete
I really can't think of a character I don't enjoy from this film. So much of that is the dialogue. Jay mentioned it above--this film is completely quotable.Delete
Everyone has talked about the film, so I'll mention a few related things:ReplyDelete
I remember McDormand, during her Best Actress Oscar acceptance speech, joking "12 years of sleeping with the director and I finally get a good part." (She's married to Joel Coen.)
I was disappointed when I later found out the Coens were lying when they said this was based on a true story. Apparently it was just a joke on their part.
Some people claim that Minnesota native Prince played one of the early shooting victims, whose face you never see. This has been both "confirmed" and "refuted" multiple times over the years.
I remember being less than impressed with Gene Siskel, who loved this film, because the two reasons he loved it were the funny accents and the fact that Marge doesn't give birth. That's it. Not for the story, performances, direction, or anything else, but the accents and for surprising him by not having a birth in the film. And this was a professional film critic.
My husband hates this movie. He and his whole family.ReplyDelete
Granted, they're from Minnesota (and don't exactly have the most discerning film taste - one of them made me watch "Trapped in Paradise" one Christmas because "it's so good!", and it was honestly one of the worst films I've ever seen). They can't get over how over the top the accents are, and they feel personally insulted by the portrayal of Minnesotans. Seriously, get them going on the subject - they actually get ANGRY if someone mentions this movie, they hate this movie so much.
It's just something Rob and I have come to an amicable accord on. I will not watch Fargo when he is in the house. In fact, I don't own it on DVD - if I did, I think I'd need to hide it. Seriously, that's how much his family HATES this movie.
Whatever. I think it's awesome.
@Chip--I knew that this was not really based on a real story. I think it was just a joke by the Coens, and I was mildly disappointed for a moment and then I decided not to care that much. As for Siskel, he actually does have a point about not having the baby born. Leaving Marge pregnant at the end ("two more months") makes this film a slice out of their lives. While the story has a beginning and an end, it helps make them real people, since we know that they have lives beyond the film. Not everything we see ends up tied in a bow.Delete
@Sio--I can sort of see that. I think a lot of Minnesotans (I work with a lot of them) were put out by being portrayed as rubes and hicks. It's easy to overlook, though, that most of the Minnesotans we encounter are actually pretty smart. They just talk a bit funny. You might also tell them to stay away from Mystery Science Theater 3000, since there's a lot of Minnesota-related jokes there, too.
I'll agree with everything positive anyone has to say about Fargo. But do Minnesotans really talk like that? Since Sweden must be responsible for that odd accent, I hereby officially apologize :)ReplyDelete
The Minnesota accent is sort of Canada-lite, so it's not entirely Sweden's fault.Delete
I'll have to visit sometime, and listen for myself!ReplyDelete
It's very cool to hear how well it held up. It's been some time since I have seen it too so now I'm looking forward to a rewatch. Great review!ReplyDelete
I have decided that it's impossible to watch Fargo too much.Delete
I can't believe you missed the opportunity to refer to Marge's husband as Norm Son-of-a Gunderson.ReplyDelete
Which is exactly what Mike Yanagita calls him when he meets Marge in the hotel.Delete