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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.


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