Skip to main content

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #198: Fargo

The world of Joel and Ethan Coen is sometimes filled with otherworldly characters stuck in bizarre situations, but sometimes it is populated by truly realistic people dealing with real horrors. The Coen’s Oscar winning film Fargo (1996) features ordinary people getting into a heap of trouble over money in the states of Minneapolis and North Dakota during a frigid winter in 1987. The person who sorts out the mess as the bodies start piling up is not a super cop armed to the teeth, but a very polite and very pregnant police officer who is baffled by the concept of greed. This is not one of the Coen Brothers’ funniest movies, but it is one of their best in a standout filmography.

I bought the special edition DVD of Fargo a few years ago while living in Quebec City during some after Christmas shopping and was eager to see it as I had heard very good things and my brother and I are very big fans of The Big Lebowski. Tonally this is very different from their cult movie featuring The Dude, although it does have slight moments of humour throughout. What surprised me the most was how much I could identify with this world. I have never been to Fargo and apart from a short plane stop in Minneapolis I have not spent much time in Minnesota, but I have lived in Quebec, Newfoundland, and Alberta. The winter there is very similar as well as the layers of clothes people have to wear before leaving their homes. In fact the world of Fargo is so similar to one I live in that I am pretty sure the people in the movie shop in the same place my mom does, because in one scene a woman is using one of her cooking pots.

One prop that is crucial to the film’s storyline is a 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cierra, which the hapless Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy) gives to criminals Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud (Coen regulars Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare). The car is part of their payment to kidnap Jerry’s wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd), which greatly puzzles Carl. Why kidnap your own wife? It’s like paying Peter to pay Paul. The money would actually come from Jerry’s wealthy father-in-law Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell), which Jerry would then use for a lucrative business deal. Jerry could just ask for the money, but like many father-in-laws Wade does not have a high opinion of Jerry.

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and since Jerry’s good intentions are to make money off the kidnapping of his wife things obviously don’t go well. Jerry comes home to see events have been irrevocably set in motion and practices giving a panicked call to Wade to set up the ransom money. What he could not have practiced for is Carl informing him blood has been shed after he and Gaear were pulled over by a state trooper because of the Cierra’s car tags just outside of Brainerd, the home of Paul Bunyan. Gaear deals with the situation by putting bullet in the trooper’s head and killing the two witnesses who have the misfortune of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Early next morning police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, who won an Oscar for the role) begins to investigate the triple homicide. She almost gets sick at the crime scene, not because of the three bodies, but because she is seven months pregnant. Having to raid hotel buffets to fill her stomach does not stop her from tracking down the Cierra to Jerry’s car dealership, where Jerry starts to become very nervous indeed despite dealing with one of the nicest cops in the world, who punctuates all of her sentences with “yah,” “geez,” and “you betcha.”
Carl also becomes quite easy to find as most people in the region describe him as a little guy who is “kind of funny looking,” a fair description of Steve Buscemi’s physique if there ever was one. Gaear on the other hand stands out not just because of the way he looks, but because he seems to be the most purely evil character in the whole region. Chain smoking and always silent, he kills without remorse or hesitation and makes interesting usage of a wood chipper. He is such a bad guy he seems out of place in an otherwise realistic setting for a true crime thriller.

There was somewhat of a debate as to whether or not Fargo was indeed based on a true story and apparently one viewer was so convinced this was a true story she flew to Minnesota to look for the ransom money. Historical accuracy aside, this is a rare movie that features real people who have to worry about defrosting their windshield and need to wear heavy boots in the cold winter. It may not have the action of Lethal Weapon, but Fargo is one of the best crime movies ever made filled with characters many people living up north can identify with.


Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #77: Spartacus

Spartacus (1960) is an interesting movie in Stanley Kubrick's filmography because it doesn’t really feel like a Stanley Kubrick movie. I don’t exactly know why, but his signature style doesn’t seem to be present unlike in classics such as The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, or Dr. Strangelove. It does however feel like one of those big sword-and-sandals epics in which you have British thespians acting as Roman politicians with the occasional big battle sequence. In that respect it is spectacular and features Kirk Douglas at his best as the titular hero.
The story of the rebel slave Spartacus has inspired a bloody and sexy TV series (so far unseen by me, but I hear it’s great) and the story behind how it was made is one of those cases of life imitating art. The Bryan Cranston film Trumbo tells how screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted in Hollywood during the 1950s for his communist beliefs and had to rebel against the system by writing screenplays for cheap movies under a fake nam…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #79: The Thin Red Line

I once saw an interview in which Christopher Plummer said that what Terrence Malick needs is a writer. He was referring to his experience shooting The New World, which saw his role considerably reduced. The same happened to a much greater extent with Malick’s war movie The Thin Red Line (1998), which saw the screen time of many movie stars reduced to mere minutes amid a 170-minute running time. However you have to hand it to the guy: he knows how to make anything look beautiful, including the carnage of war.
Malick’s movie came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan, so I think that year I had my fill of ultra violent war films and was no too interested in seeing it. Sixteen years later I finally caught up to it on Netflix, but in hindsight the big screen might have been a better option since this is a very visual story. The plot is pretty loose, following one American soldier and sometimes some of his brothers in arms as they make their way through World War II in the Pacific theat…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #85: Blue Velvet

Exactly how do you describe a David Lynch movie? He is one of the few directors whose style is so distinctive that his last name has become an adjective. According to Urban Dictionary, the definition of Lynchian is: “having the same balance between the macabre and the mundane found in the works of filmmaker David Lynch.” To see a prime example of that adjective film lovers need look no further than Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), which does indeed begin in the mundane before slowly sinking in macabre violence.
My first introduction to the world of David Lynch was through his ground breaking, but unfortunately interrupted, early 1990s TV series Twin Peaks. This was one of the first television shows to grab viewers with a series-long mystery: who killed Laura Palmer? A mix of soap opera, police procedural, and the supernatural, it is a unique show that showed the darkness hidden in suburbia and remains influential to this day. Featuring Kyle MacLachlan as an FBI investigator with a love for …