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Fargo (1996)

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Score: 10/10

Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 38 min.

Release Date: April 5th, 1996 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen Actors: William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Francis McDormand, John Carroll Lynch, Harve Presnell, Larry Brandenburg

“T

his is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” Following this unnerving (and not entirely truthful) written introduction is a riveting drama of death, dismemberment, small town criminality, and exaggerated accents. Winner of two Academy Awards (Best Actress and Original Screenplay), with a total of seven nominations including Best Picture, “Fargo” is a mesmerizing thriller bursting with unforgettable characters and a pulse-pounding conclusion.

Mechanic Shep Proudfoot (Steven Reevis) has arranged for the stammering, nervous, car sales manager Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) to meet with two unscrupulous men, the talkative Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and the stone-faced Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), for a particularly dastardly mission in Fargo, North Dakota. Jerry wants his wife kidnapped and ransomed for $80,000, half of which will go to the hired hands and half ending up in Jerry’s pocket. It will be paid by his wife’s wealthy father Wade (Harve Presnell), who cares little for his unaccomplished, disappointing son-in-law. But when Wade unexpectedly expresses interest in Jerry’s land purchasing proposal, he rethinks the deal with Carl and Gaear. Unable to reach them in time, the plan is set in motion – with irreversible consequences.

When Gaear spontaneously executes a state trooper in Brainerd, Minnesota, local police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who is approximately seven months into her pregnancy, is called in to investigate. But morning sickness and frequent meals don’t get in the way of her detective work, which finds her visiting the bar where Lundegaard met Carl and Gaear, Shep’s shop, and finally Jerry’s workplace. As the kidnapping ploy escalates to triple homicide and beyond, with Jerry’s covert involvement unraveling tremendously, Marge gets closer to uncovering a seemingly simple scheme that has spiraled wildly out of control.

Astonishingly, and in rare form, the main character isn’t even introduced until over 30 minutes into the picture. And she’s quite the leading lady, sporting a heavy accent and unbalancing pregnancy weight. Somewhat sloppy sleuthing by simpleminded officers out of their element clashes with Marge’s overabundance of common sense as she delivers natural dialogue with a sensationally unhurried sensibility. Extra scenes are included for the sake of demonstrating the easygoing but capable manner in which she handles unexpected ordeals, as well as to exhibit her own flaws in determining truths and lies. In the end, though her mind is far sharper (and optimistic) than those of her opponents, she’s also formidable with a gun.

In riveting murder-mystery fashion, the ransom plot becomes exponentially more problematic by the minute, with everything seemingly going wrong for Jerry, an unhappy, oft browbeaten man embroiled in petty scams and pushed to the limits by his wife’s sniffy father. Macy’s performance is spectacular, conveying obvious guilt and overwhelming ruination. Contributing to the cinematically unique leads are the pitch black comicalness of Buscemi’s inept thug and Stormare’s coldly indifferent, unhinged accomplice. And these characters are all housed in an environment infrequently reserved for cinema – a tight-knit community, desolate highways, and average people encircled by the isolating power of snow and ice, which lends to highly contrasting personalities and a more exaggerated sense of the unexpected.

A striking theme of gentle piano notes and mournful strings by Coen Brothers’ regular Carter Burwell immediately betrays a strength and potency of filmmaking rarely witnessed, notable even as the opening credits appear over nothing more than a lone car traveling through hazy snow. It majestically introduces a breathtaking tale of macabre true crime mayhem in the vein of “The Silence of the Lambs” but with a marginally lighter tone (though many categorize “Fargo” as an outright comedy, which is far from its actual presentation). Combining singular character designs, top-notch acting, morbid wit, bloody violence, and an engrossing mystery (wherein the audience is privy to all of the details before the detectives unveil them), it’s a must-see cinematic masterpiece that aptly expands upon the brilliancy witnessed in the Coen’s first crime feature, “Blood Simple,” from 1984.

– Mike Massie

 



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