30 Years of Coens: Fargo

The movie that brought it all together

MGM Home Entertainment

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Coen brothers' debut, Blood Simple, I’m re-watching their 16 feature films and attempting to jot down observations on one per day, in order of their release. For a fuller explanation of what I’m doing and why, see my first entry, on Blood Simple. (Here, too, are my entries on Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, and The Hudsucker Proxy. The landing page for the whole series is here.)

Notes on Fargo (1996)

• What an immensely pleasant way to spend an evening. I’ve never responded to Fargo quite as ecstatically as I do to Miller’s Crossing, but it's a tremendous film, arguably the most impeccably balanced of the Coens’ career. Watching it is akin to having an exceptionally good meal: There are flavors both familiar and unexpected, the portions are exactly right, and when it’s over one is left with a feeling of profound satisfaction. Yum.

• The Coens had working scripts for both Fargo and The Big Lebowski before they even shot The Hudsucker Proxy, so when the latter tanked they were well positioned to move on quickly. Fargo had been written with Frances McDormand in mind and for The Big Lebowski they wanted Jeff Bridges; since Bridges was busy shooting Wild Bill for director Walter Hill, Fargo went to the front of the line. It’s widely known that the onscreen text that opens the film—“This is a true story…”—was an outright fabrication. (The script is very, very loosely inspired by a kidnapping the Coens had heard about in Minnesota and a separate incident in which a man in Connecticut had fed his wife’s body into a woodchipper.) What’s less well remembered is that this was merely one element of a whole PR campaign surrounding the release, in which the Coens themselves repeatedly claimed in interviews that the story was meticulously fact-based. (Joel: “There was no need or desire to tidy this one up: The characters very clearly speak for themselves.”) The intent—whatever one may think of the deception inherent in it—was to present a film that very clearly took place in the “real” world, in contrast to the stylized universes of their previous films, and Hudsucker in particular. This mandate also informed the film itself, which is shot from much more straightforward angles, using longer lenses, and usually with a fixed camera. The result is an almost documentary feel compared to their earlier work.

Fargo marked a welcome return to the stark landscapes and endless highways that characterized Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, with the arid scrub of the southwest replaced by flat, polar vistas. (The movie was filmed during the second-warmest Minnesota winter then on record, requiring some outdoor shoots to be moved north for adequate snow cover.) Though Hudsucker had been the Coens’ “biggest” movie by far, it was also their most enclosed. Despite its much smaller budget of around $7 million, Fargo in many ways feels like a larger film, one that eschewed the soundstage for a wider world.

• The city of Fargo itself appears only in the opening sequence of the movie, in which Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) enlists the services of two seamy hoods (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife. (Even there, Fargo appears in name only: The Kings of Clubs bar was actually located in Minneapolis.) With customary diffidence, the Coens maintain that they named the film after the city merely because they liked the sound of it. But it’s easy to imagine the title as a tongue-in-cheek play on Chinatown, as if the North Dakotan metropolis were the locus of some festering moral contagion that will gradually envelop the film. It’s notable that the Coens tell us almost nothing about what has taken place before the movie begins. We don’t know anything about the relationship between the Buscemi and Stormare characters—except that it seems to have begun recently—nor of the latter’s precise connection to Shep Proudfoot. There’s no backstory regarding Jerry’s marriage either. Most important of all, it is never revealed how in the world Jerry has fallen hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt.

• As with Miller’s Crossing, composer Carter Burwell based the score on a traditional song connected with the cultural heritage of the characters in the film, in this case a Norwegian folksong called “The Lost Sheep.” (You can hear a rendition here.) The result is a moody, magnificent score, with the slightest hint of whimsy in the accompanying sleigh bells. I rank it second out of all of Burwell’s scores for the Coens, narrowly beating out the manic whistling and yodeling of Raising Arizona. The central motif, played gently at first on a harp and then far more disconcertingly on a scratchy, Scandinavian hardanger fiddle, is the perfect accompaniment for the opening of the film: the snow-white screen, on which we gradually make out a bird in flight, and then the approaching car, framed by vertical telephone poles (another inverse nod to The Third Man)? The bird, incidentally, was a lucky, unscripted accident—just like the plunging pelican that was the final image of Barton Fink. The Coens, as they’ve noted on several occasions, just have good luck with birds.

• The film belongs to the first genuinely heroic figure in the Coenverse, McDormand’s Chief Marge Gunderson—so much so, in fact, that I’m always surprised when she doesn’t make her first appearance until a third of the way into the film. But the balance maintained between her, Macy, and Buscemi is exquisite. Macy’s eye-opening performance instantly vaulted him from theater and television into the top tier of cinematic character actors. And it’s fascinating the way that Buscemi—in his first starring performance for the Coens after three consecutive bit parts—so often operates as our interlocutor in the film: the “sane” one despite his criminality, untouched by the weirdness of “Minnesota Nice,” who merely wants everything to go as planned, and who bit by bit comes violently unglued as it doesn’t.

• The Coens have never lacked for confidence, but this was their most confident film to date, a blending of humor and drama that at the time felt daring but in retrospect seems almost obvious. In particular, I’m struck by the evolution of my feelings toward the scene in which Marge meets Mike Yanagita at the Radisson bar. The first time I saw the movie—the first couple of times, even—this sequence really threw me. Why was it here? What did it have to do with anything? Now, it’s one of the scenes I most look forward to, and I can’t imagine the film without it.

• Another scene that carries more weight every time I see it is the one, late in the movie, in which Mr. Mohra, the bartender shoveling his driveway, tells Officer Olson about the “funny looking” guy who was in his bar, boasting about having killed someone. It’s a lovely, unassuming scene, especially given that it conveys the essential clue in the entire investigation. For all of Marge’s diligent police work tracking down Shep and Jerry and the hookers, it is this quasi-random tip that will lead Marge to the cabin, and the murdered wife, and the leg being shoved unceremoniously into the woodchipper. I presume that this is how police work customarily unfolds, and it’s nice to see a movie present this reality rather than opt for the big eureka moment that cracks the case wide open.

• How marvelous is John Carroll Lynch as Marge’s husband, Norm? If McDormand humanizes the film, it’s Lynch who helps humanize her. He’s wonderful in every scene in which he appears, but never more so than in the last one: Marge has closed the case, he’s won the three-cent stamp, and all is, for a moment, right in the world. It’s a tremendously gratifying, entirely irony-free moment from directors rarely known to indulge such sentiment. Two more months.

• One of the pleasures of watching the Coens’ movies in quick succession is that it’s much easier to catch the many repetitions, convergences, and inside jokes that make up their unfolding oeuvre. The most obvious in Fargo is the Blood-Simple-like effort (unsuccessful in this case) to get a body off the road before encroaching headlights arrive. But there are numerous other hints and echoes of the Coens’ earlier work. When Mrs. Lundegaard flees into the bathroom she hides in the shower while her pursuers check the window; in Blood Simple, Abby went out the window and Visser checked the shower. Similarly, when Buscemi’s character tweaks Stormare’s as a “smart guy,” the roles have been reversed post-Miller’s Crossing, with the prattling Buscemi filling in for Tom Reagan and Stormare inheriting the lethal mantle of the Dane. With a nod to Raising Arizona, we go from “funny shapes” (“not unless round is funny”) to “funny looking” (“he wasn’t circumsized”). And the shocking, out-of-nowhere axe murder late in the film closely recalls—no wait, we haven’t gotten there yet. Wait a week or so.

• The eagle-eyed may spot Sam Raimi favorite Bruce Campbell—who had a small role in The Hudsucker Proxy—as the actor in the soap opera that Buscemi and Stormare watch on the staticky television at the cabin. The footage is from Generations, an actual Detroit-area soap that Campbell starred on in the early 1980s. As the actor explained at one point: “I contacted the Cohen brothers about being in Fargo and that was the only role available, for me to donate some bad footage, so I was happy to do it.”

• For fans of (or those merely curious about) the surprisingly good FX series Fargo developed by Noah Hawley, my mid-season review is here. Ultimately, I felt that after a very strong start it wandered rather far afield before returning to its central mystery in the final few episodes. Had the series only been, say, six episodes long, it would have been terrific. At 10, it sagged noticeably in the middle. We’ll see what the next season (also slated for 10 episodes) brings.

Et Cetera:

Where I rank Fargo among Coens films: #3 (out of 16)

Where I rank its score, by Carter Burwell, among Coens scores by Carter Burwell: #2 (out of however many I decide to rank)

Best line: “I’d be very surprised if our suspect was from Brainerd.”

Best visual: Jerry, shot from above, returning to his car in the snowy, empty lot of his father-in-law’s office building

Best sound: Is that some kind of machinery running back there behind the cabin?

Notable locale: Minnesota

Drinking-game-suitable catchphrase: “You betcha.”

Dream sequence(s): Almost! There was a sequence in the original script in which Marge dreams of fetuses, but it was never filmed

Important scene(s) set in a bathroom: Yes

Number of characters who vomit: Zero, but again, almost one (Marge says she going to barf, but she does not in fact barf)

Next up: The Big Lebowski