Alfred Hitchcock would have liked this 1996 Joel Coen and Ethan Coen quirky thriller that contains so much comedy it transcends genres. It borrows a number of techniques from the master of thriller movies, including a clever McGuffin, a villain with empathy, horrific incidents that are hilarious, and a tremendous environmental atmosphere.
The following review contains plot spoilers!
Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is caught in a deep financial bind during the winter of 1987 and hatches a scheme to hire two thugs, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) so that her wealthy father, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) will pay enough money to pay off the kidnappers and leave him high and dry financially. At the same time, he has been working on a real estate deal that would leave him wealthy enough to quit the car business altogether. He has been pitching this scheme to his father-in-law hoping that the man will loan him $750,000 to complete the deal.
He drives to Fargo to give the prospective kidnappers a 1987 Oldsmobile Ciera to cement the deal, passing through the hamlet of Brainerd, Minnesota, home of Paul Bunyan. Returning to Minneapolis, Jerry is shocked to find that Wade is actually interested in the real estate deal, so he hastily tries to contact the kidnappers to cancel the deal, but they are already on the road to the Twin Cities. In a meeting with Wade and his financial officer, Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg), Jerry finds that they only want to pay him a finder’s fee and will not loan him the $750,000. Although Jean puts of nominal resistance, Carl and Gaear wrap her up in a shower curtain (there are several reverential Psycho moments) and head back to Fargo. When Jerry finds Jean missing, he tells Wade that the kidnappers want one million dollars for her return, thinking he can get the money for the real estate deal, but that the kidnappers will only deal with him.
Outside Brainerd, Carl and Gaear get stopped by a state patrolman because Carl has forgotten to put tags on the Ciera. While he attempts to smooth things over with the officer, Jean moans under the shower curtain in the back seat and the trooper asks them to exit the vehicle. On impulse, Gaear grabs the officer and shoots him in the head. He tells Carl to move the body off the highway and while Carl is trying to drag the dead man out of the way, a car happens by and two people witness it. Gaear puts the Ciera in gear, chases down the witnesses and shoots both of them after their car has flipped into a field.
Brainerd Sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is awakened in the early morning hours by her deputies who need her at the scene of the triple homicide. Her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), faithfully fixes his seven-month pregnant wife breakfast, jumps her patrol car, and sends her off. Marge quickly figures out exactly what happens and launches an investigation that leads her to the Blue Ox Motel where the two men stayed on their way to Minneapolis. She interviews the two girls who bedded the men and follows up on several phone calls made to Jerry’s mechanic, Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis) who had set the deal up for Jerry. Following up this lead, she goes to Minneapolis only to find that Shep has disappeared. She interviews an extremely nervous Jerry, ultimately growing suspicious of him.
Jerry’s plans are derailed when Wade takes the money and heads for a rooftop parking lot to meet Carl. Jerry follows, but Carl gets annoyed by Wade and shoots him. Wade gets in one shot that goes through Carl’s jaw. Further annoyed, Carl empties his gun into Wade’s body and runs with the money, shooting the parking lot attendant on the way out. Stopping on a lonely highway, he looks into the bag and discovers a million dollars. He takes out enough to account for the original small ransom that Jerry had told him about and buries the bag in the snow along a fence, marking the spot with his ice scraper.
Thinking that Jerry may have lied to her, Marge goes back to the dealership, but Jerry storms out and disappears, so she puts him on the radar for the state police. When Carl returns to their Moose Lake hideout, he finds that Gaear has killed Jean. He gives the man his half of the money, but Gaear is upset that they were also supposed to divide the Ciera. Carl yells at him, but on his way out, Gaear kills him, too. A tip leads Marge to Moose Lake where she discovers Gaear feeding Carl’s body into a wood chipper. She confronts him and when he tries to run, she wounds him and then arrests him. On the way in, she adds up the deaths and remarks that the money wasn’t worth it. Jerry is found at a motel and arrested.
Right from the very beginning of the movie, the atmosphere is stark and it sets up the cold northern winter that is the blanketing background of the movie. A wash of white fills the camera and only fleetingly do we see Jerry’s car moving through the hazy bleak whiteness. The cinematography is extraordinary and the use of color is truly dazzling.
The script and the editing are extremely tight, leading to a film that runs only one hour and thirty-eight minutes, yet tells a completely compelling story. The dialogue is crisp and taut, full of the deep northern dialect that lends a comedic feel from the first time Jerry opens his mouth. Each scene is so succinct and well written that the story moves inexorably to its conclusion. There is only one plot element that slows it down: a subplot with an old acquaintance of Marge that makes her think Jerry might be lying. It takes up more space than it probably warrants, but it is the only detraction from an intricate, well balanced script.
The acting is amazing, beginning with Frances McDormand and William H. Macy. Although McDormand doesn’t even make an appearance until nearly 30 minutes into the movie, her presence takes it over. Marge is a pretty simple character and she keeps everything in perspective, casually adding up the elements of the crime while dealing with her pregnancy. Her Minnesota dialect is pitch perfect and it keeps the comedy always working for the good of the film. Macy, a relatively unknown character actor before Fargo, is terrific as Jerry, a character that we instinctively don’t like, yet we feel his terror as the situation gets further and further out of hand. It is a brilliant performance.
All of the supporting actors are great, from Buscemi and Stormare as the kidnappers to Lynch as Marge’s supportive wildlife artist husband, Norm. Presnell is truly funny as Jean’s father. Everyone works together to create a wonderful ensemble of acting that all goes back to support the script.
Fargo was amply rewarded with seven Academy Award nominations, with Oscars for Frances McDormand for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay for the Coen brothers. It was also up for Best Picture (Ethan Coen), Director (Joel Coen), Best Supporting Actor (William H. Macy), Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins), and Best Editing (Roderick Jaynes).
It remains the best of a deep and impressive body of work by the Coen brothers. In spite of the violence, it is a film that can be enjoyed over and over. It is a classic of American cinema that should have a place in every serious film buff’s collection. The DVD special edition contains a “making of” featurette, as well as a Charlie Rose interview with the Coens and Frances McDormand.
As I said at the beginning, Hitchcock would have loved this one!