Director: Joel Coen
Production: Gramercy Pictures, PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Working Title Films; color, 35mm; running time: 98 minutes; length:
Producers: Ethan Coen, Tim Bevan (executive), Eric Fellner (executive); screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen; cinematographer: Roger Deakins; music: Carter Burwell; editors: Ethan Coen (as Roderick Jaynes), Joel Coen (as Roderick Jaynes); casting: John Lyons; production design: Rick Heinrichs; art direction: Thomas P. Wilkins; set decoration: Lauri Gaffin; costume design: Mary Zophres; makeup: John Blake, Daniel Curet.
Cast: William H. Macy ( Jerry Lundegaard ); Steve Buscemi ( Carl Showalter ); Frances McDormand ( Marge Gunderson ); Peter Stormare ( Gaear Grimsrud ); Kristin Rudrüd ( Jean Lundegaard ); Harve Presnell ( Wade Gustafson ); Tony Denman ( Scotty Lundegaard ); Gary Houston ( Irate Customer ); Sally Wingert ( Irate Customer's Wife ); Kurt Schweickhardt ( Car Salesman ); Larissa Kokernot ( Hooker #1 ); Melissa Peterman ( Hooker #2 ); Steve Reevis ( Shep Proudfoot ); Warren Keith ( Reilly Diefenbach ); Steve Edelman ( Morning Show Host ); Sharon Anderson ( Morning Show Hostess ); Larry Brandenburg ( Stan Grossman ); James Gaulke ( State Trooper ); and others.
Awards: Cannes Film Festival Best Director Award (Coen), 1996; National Board of Review Awards for Best Actress (McDormand) and Best Director (Coen), 1996; Australian Film Institute Best Foreign Film Award, 1996; Casting Society of America Artios Award (John S. Lyons), 1996; Academy Award for Best Actress (Frances McDormand) and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen), 1997; American Cinema Editors Eddie Award for Best Edited Feature Film, 1997; Bodil Festival Award for Best American Film, 1997; British Academy Awards David Lean Award for Direction (Joel Coen), 1997; Writers Guild of America Screen Award for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Coen and Coen), 1997; Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role (McDormand), 1997; and many other awards.
Coen, Joel, and Ethan Coen, Fargo , London, 1996.
Wood, Paul A., Blood Siblings: The Cinema of Joel and Ethan Coen , Austin, 1999.
Ashbrook, John M., and Ellen Cheshire, Joel and Ethan Coen , Harpenden, 2000.
Korte, Joel and Ethan Coen , Cambridge, 2000.
Sante, Luc, "The Rise of the Baroque Directors," in Vogue , vol. 182, no. 9, September 1992.
Friend, Tad, "Inside the Coen Heads," in Vogue , vol. 184, no. 4, April 1994.
Robertson, William Preston, "The Coen Brothers Made Easy," in Playboy , vol. 41, no. 4, April 1994.
Lally, K., "Up North with the Coen Brothers," in Film Journal (New York), vol. 99, February 1996.
Dafoe, W., "Frances McDormand," in Bomb , no. 55, Spring 1996.
Probst, Christopher, "Cold-Blooded Scheming," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 77, no. 3, March 1996.
Biskind, Peter, "Joel and Ethan Coen," in Premiere (Boulder), vol. 9, no. 7, March 1996.
Fuller, Graham, "Do Not Miss Fargo ," in Interview , vol. 26, no. 3, March 1996.
McCarthy, Todd, and Derek Elley, "Global Helmers Fill Croisette Coffers," in Variety (New York), vol. 362, no. 11, 15 April 1996.
Blake, R.A., "Whiteout," in America , vol. 174, 20 April 1996.
Simon, J., "Forgo Fargo ," in National Review , vol. 48, 22 April 1996.
Francke, Lizzie, "Hell Freezes Over," in Sight & Sound (London), vol. 6, no. 5, May 1996.
Andrew, Geoff, "Pros and Coens," in Time Out (London), no. 1343, 15 May 1996.
"Special Issue on Fargo ," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), no. 456, November 1996.
Roman, Monica, "New York Crix Circle Takes Trip to Fargo ," in Variety (New York), vol. 365, no. 7, 16 December 1996.
Probst, Christopher, "Exemplary Images," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 78, no. 6, June 1997.
Norman, Barry, "A Case of Knowing When to Go to Fargo ," in Radio Times (London), vol. 294, no. 3839, 30 August 1997.
* * *
"This is a true story," reads the on-screen caption at the beginning of Fargo. Ethan Coen's introduction to the published script tells it rather differently: "The story . . . aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true." Either way, this teasing, typically Coenesque ambiguity is something of a red herring (since fiction, in the classic definition, is a lie that tells the truth) but it makes an apt introduction to a film where the only people who win out are those who make no pretense to being anything other than they are.
Fargo marks a significant tonal shift in the Coens' work. It shares several favorite black-comedy elements with their earlier films—the solemnly off-the-wall dialogue, the laughably inept yet lethal heavies, the snowball effect of a relatively minor act of deception spiraling disastrously out of control—but also for the first time sets up a center of normality to counterpoint the off-kilter eccentricities on display elsewhere. Some previous Coen films do provide a focus for our sympathies, such as the childless Hi and Ed (Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter) in Raising Arizona , but that pair are themselves fairly advanced-state deranged. Fargo 's Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), the heavily pregnant police chief, and her aptly-named husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch) present a picture of married life that's conventional to the point of stodginess, but sustained by a mutually supportive love.
Though Marge serves as the film's moral center, it's a full thirty minutes before she appears on screen. By then, the picture's been all but stolen by William H. Macy in his breakthrough role as Jerry Lundegaard, the hapless car salesman so desperate for money that he arranges to have his own wife kidnapped. With his wide, unhappy grin and paper-thin bonhomie ("You're darn tootin'!"), Jerry is visibly flailing on the edge of the abyss—and as so often happens in the Coens' tortuous world, the people he turns to for help are just as inept, and far less scrupulous, than he is.
Even in the rich gallery of Coen villains, the mismatched pair of Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud stand out as relishably vivid. (A running gag is that none of the witnesses can ever describe this highly distinctive duo beyond saying they were "kinda funny-lookin'.") Right from the start it is clear that the teaming of the small, twitchy, voluble Carl (Steve Buscemi at his most weaselly) and the huge, menacingly taciturn Gaear (Peter Stormare) is headed for a particularly vicious meltdown. Gaear, whose name and demeanor suggest one of the less savory denizens of the Icelandic sagas, is another of those monstrous figures-from-the-id who recur in the Coens' films, close kin to the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in Raising Arizona or Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink. He also seems to be blood-brother to Paul Bunyan, whose mad-eyed effigy we glimpse by the highway outside Brainard, carrying an axe much like the one Gaear eventually buries in Carl's neck. (Following through on these forestry impulses, he proceeds to feed his ex-partner into a wood-chipper.)
Embodiments of the destructive instinct at its most self-defeating, Carl and Gaear casually bump off anybody who irritates them or even momentarily incommodes them. The death of the luckless Jean Lundegaard, Jerry's kidnapped wife, rates just two lines—Carl: "The fuck happen to her?" Gaear: "She started shrieking, y'know." Against these lethal clowns Marge Gunderson initially seems a hopelessly inadequate opponent, with her waddling, pregnant walk and slow speech. (The Coens, themselves Minnesota-born, have fun with local Scandinavian speech-patterns; most exchanges consist largely of "Oh, yah?" "Yah.") But Marge, compassionate but not sentimental, combines her nurturing role with the tenacity of the tough cop whose accepted image she so little resembles. Carl, Gaear, and Jerry violate everything her down-to-earth common sense believes in, summed up in her remarks to the captured Gaear: "And for what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life than a little money, y'know. . . . And it's a beautiful day. I just don't understand it."
Marge's innate decency, and her comfortably affectionate relationship with Norm, provide Fargo with the core of warmth that was often lacking from the Coens' earlier films. The filmmakers also, for the first time, admit the intrusion of genuine grief in the reaction of Jerry's son Scotty to his mother's kidnaping.
Their next film, The Big Lebowski , features "Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) a character whose instinctive (if dope-hazed) humanity stands in contrast to the cheats, double-dealers, and thugs around him. Such elements seem set to add a deeper emotional investment to the Coens' work, without in the least detracting from their wit, inventiveness, and stylistic bravura.