Ice-cold thriller with a downhome feel from the Coen brothers
With a $25 million budget, major studio backing, special effects from George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic and epic production design demanding four separate camera units, 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy was the biggest movie the Coen brothers had ever made. It was the logical step for the fraternal film-makers who had progressed with ease, in both popularity and critical acclaim, from 1984’s Blood Simple through Raising Arizona (1987) and Miller’s Crossing (1990) to Cannes favourite Barton Fink (1991). The Hudsucker Proxy was to be their crowning achievement. Naturally, it was a complete flop. Ambivalent response and a paltry $2.8 million return sent the Coen brothers scuttling home to their native Minnesota with a tiny crew and a cast of character actors in tow. The result, Fargo, is their greatest movie.
The opening scene sets the agenda. A tense exchange in a roadside bar in Fargo, North Dakota (the movie never returns to Fargo, and could have been named “Brainerd” or “Minneapolis”, after the two main locations). Here, timid car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (Macy) hires criminals Carl Showalter (Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Stormare) to kidnap his wife and extort cash from his father-in-law. The men bicker about payment and motive until finally the taciturn Grimsrud asks, “Why don’t you just ask him [the father-in-law] for the money?” Jerry stutters and blusters, refusing to contemplate the idea, not just because the movie requires the kidnapping in order to execute a calamitous chain reaction of plot-points, but because Jerry doesn’t want to lose face. He’d rather torture his wife than be publicly humiliated.
As the movie unfolds and the kidnapping sours and local police become entangled in Jerry’s deceptions, this same pressure of appearance is underscored with Midwestern politeness. The Coens are fascinated by the banal details of ordinary life, and include scenes of helpful hotel clerks, beaming store assistants, friendly policemen and cheery barmen, all of whom use a homely argot?”You’re darn tootin”, “Oh yah, you betcha!” And yet when Jerry suddenly trashes his desk in temper, or when a disgruntled customer snaps and calls him a “fucking liar”, we get a glimpse of the anger beneath the social veneer. This anger finds expression in the gruesome murders committed by Showalter and Grimsrud, who are possibly the movie’s most honest characters?they’re pure Id, cursing, screwing and shooting at will.
Consequently, there’s a chilly misanthropy to Fargo that’s consistent with a film-making combo that are often criticised for being too coolly cerebral. Yet it’s a chill that’s counterbalanced by the movie’s greatest creation, police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). Marge is a Candide-like heroine who infuses Fargo’s bleak world with a quirky sense of optimism. She’s a savvy criminologist who’s equally at ease with dead bodies and hardened convicts, and still she’s naive enough to upbraid a mass murderer, “There’s more to life than money, you know. Don’t you know that?” She’s an attempt to provide the film with a moral centre. And even so, occasionally, in her cosy scenes with docile husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch), and despite McDormand’s towering performance, you sense that the Coens aren’t too enamoured with her either. The movie’s other career-making performance comes from Macy. His fascinating face?red button nose, bug eyes, wide twitchy mouth?has never been better employed, somehow revealing a frightening tenacity underneath Jerry’s nervous exterior.
Stylistically, Fargo is restrained (for a Coens movie). Production design is mercifully light, and camera work is inconspicuous. Instead, we get a hypnotic study in white. Without horizon lines, cars simply drive away from camera into white space, as if into the margin of the screenplay itself. It’s this eerie suspicion that there’s nothing beyond the hermetic world of Fargo that makes it such a powerful and claustrophobic experience. That the characters trapped within this world can earn our sympathy despite themselves is a testament to the genius of Joel and Ethan Coen.