I was at college in Boston when Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo was released in 1996, and I remember groaning at the characters’ outrageously exaggerated Minnesota accents. Then the next day I called home, and when my mom picked up the phone I realized I was talking to Frances McDormand. Minnesotans will have a chance to revisit the classic film when it screens at the Walker Art Center on October 2 and 10.
Fargo was the Coens’ first film to be set here in their native state, and it remains their best by a wide margin. (It is possible that I could be surprised later this fall when I catch up on a couple of their later films I haven’t yet seen.) All the brothers’ gifts are on full display in this darkly comic thriller, and for once they are at the service of a complete cast of genuine characters rather than showy performances. Riveting, funny, and most moving in the parts where you least expect to be moved, Fargo is one of the best films of its—or any—decade.
The movie stars William H. Macy in an Oscar-nominated turn as Jerry Lundegaard, a hapless car salesman who’s secretly in financial trouble to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars. His father-in-law Wade (a flinty Harve Presnell) has the cash to bail him out, but accurately sees Jerry as a putz. Jerry concocts a scheme by which a pair of cons (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) will kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrüd, love the umlaut) for $40,000, leaving Jerry with the $960,000 balance of the ransom they will demand of Wade. When things go wrong and “blood has been shed,” as Buscemi puts it, Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, earning a Best Actress statuette from the Academy) is put on the case.
The Coens never have a problem getting excellent performances from their actors, but appropriate acting in a Coen Brothers movie typically means playing not a real character, but rather the kind of person my dad calls “a real character.” Actors who dare to put a ghost in the machine do so at their own peril—Jennifer Jason Leigh shows a touchingly human vulnerability in The Hudsucker Proxy, the Coen film immediately preceding Fargo, but is left adrift in a sea of gleaming set pieces. Fargo, however, for once doesn’t feel like the brothers showing some genre the what-for; it just feels like itself, and the characters inhabit a recognizable landscape. I don’t just mean it’s literally recognizable, as it is for Minnesotans, I mean that it feels like a real place and not a sterile set. The fact that Blood-Simple-style violence takes place there doesn’t take away from its verisimilitude. Horrific violence does in fact take place in unpretentious Midwestern communities…all the more reason to go ice fishing (if that’s your thing) and try to forget about it.
Tone is another quality the Coens can spin on the tips of their fingers like Meadowlark Lemon spinning a basketball, but again, here it doesn’t feel like an academic exercise. Slow fades, quiet establishing shots of snowy fields, and Carter Burwell’s expansive score anchor the film and keep the broadly satirical elements from taking over. McDormand and Macy deliver perfectly-pitched performances, with deep currents of desperation and empathy (respectively) running beneath their merrily down-jacketed façades. Macy’s family-friendly epithets (“What the Christ!” is as obscene as he gets) are funny, and we do laugh, but his agitation is so real that his outbursts are just as emotionally effective as Buscemi’s fusillades of f-bombs.
McDormand’s performance is just as finely observed; when her devoted husband rolls out of bed and clears his throat in a yucky-sounding wretch, her affectionate half-smile shows us just how deep her love for him is. The Coens, who won a writing Oscar for the screenplay, generously give McDormand an entire scene that is a complete red herring from the standpoint of plot but serves to demonstrate her character’s profound compassion. With the Buscemi character the Coens indulge their taste for incongruously high diction, but where that was tedious in Raising Arizona, here it works by underlining the big-talking pretensions of Buscemi’s lowlife character; Buscemi stutters and hesitates, making clear that he’s struggling to muster those highfalutin phrases dropped in amidst his usual gutter talk.
“Wobegon” is a dirty word among many of the Coens’ local fans, and it’s as hard to picture Garrison Keillor appearing at the Walker is it is to imagine Olga Viso leading a procession down Summit Avenue (as Keillor did when the World Theater was renamed the Fitzgerald)—but Keillor, like the Coens, is a local boy who’s won the love of international culture vultures while retaining a soft spot for home; and Keillor’s best monologues share a certain wisdom with Fargo. The world can be hard and cold—literally as well as emotionally—and as objectively ridiculous as those duck stamp contests and hotdish potlucks are, they bring us together in warmth and happiness. That’s why we love them so.