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  • Post last modified:August 5, 2020

Fargo: A Game Changer for the Coens


fargoWilliam H. Macy reportedly fought hard for this film. Ethan and Joel Coen were not sure that he was the right guy to play Jerry Lundegaard, a loser who plans to have his wife kidnapped. But Macy knew better. As soon as he had read the script he realized that he would be perfect. As the story goes, Macy tracked down the Coens and told them “I’m very, very worried that you are going to screw up this movie by giving this role to somebody else. It’s my role, and I’ll shoot your dogs if you don’t give it to me.”

Turns out that maybe Macy understood this movie even better than the Coens.

In dire need of money
The year is 1987 and Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard is in dire need of money. He’s working on a scheme and needs his wealthy father-in-law (Harve Presnell) to invest, but he’s also got a drastic backup plan. Jerry’s been planning for some time to have his wife Jean (Kirstin Rudrud) kidnapped in order to extract ransom money from her father. He needs more experienced hands to perform the job though… and that’s where the rat-like Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and his grim, platinum-blonde partner Gaer Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) come in. The kidnapping goes smoothly, at least in comparison with what happens next – Carl and Gaer end up killing not just a cop but also two witnesses. The murders are investigated by a local police chief, the very pregnant Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). Unfortunately for Carl and Gaer, Marge quickly realizes what’s going on…

Vivid, desolate images
The Coens may have been inspired by actual criminal cases, but it is safe to assume that everything else is spun out of their by now familiar imagination. When this movie opened, the duo had been delivering original, quirky thrillers and dramas for a decade, including the highly watchable Blood Simple., Raising Arizona and Barton Fink. Fargo, however, was a game-changer.

Real Coen snobs will always argue that the ingredients that made this film so brilliant had been evident ever since their debut, which is true, but in Fargo the Coen touch was perfected. The movie has clumsy, not-too-brilliant criminals, a somewhat likable but still hopeless loser in the lead, strong female characters, a despotic, powerful old man in the supporting cast, some blood-spattering violence (more so here than in any previous Coen film), colorful locations and a great, laidback sense of humor. Carter Burwell provides highly dramatic music with a countryside touch and Roger Deakins creates vivid, desolate images of a frozen landscape on the border of Minnesota and North Dakota. Winter was unusually mild at the time of shooting, but the crew successfully makes it look positively arctic. McDormand, who’s married to the director, proves that family connections have nothing to do with why she got the role of Marge; she’s amazing as the no-nonsense, sweet police chief and her scenes together with John Carroll Lynch as the husband seem so natural one can’t believe they’re not married in real life. It’s a contrast to the bloody shenanigans of Carl and Gaer; Buscemi is ideal as always in these kinds of roles and the movie also gave Stormare his American breakthrough as the quiet but deadly Scandinavian hit man.

And Macy? Well, he was right. Whenever he plays a loser, he finds the exact right tone; we empathize with Jerry even though he’s an idiot because we see the genuine fear in his eyes.

The Scandinavian accents are part of the fun, but also the genuineness of the frequent encounters with Minnesota locals throughout the story. It’s the details that make Fargo brilliant. You betcha.

Fargo 1996-U.S. 97 min. Color. Produced by Ethan Coen. Directed by Joel Coen. Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Cinematography: Roger Deakins. Music: Carter Burwell. Cast: Frances McDormand (Marge Gunderson), William H. Macy (Jerry Lundegaard), Steve Buscemi (Carl Showalter), Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare, Kirstin Rudrud… JosĂ© Feliciano.

Trivia: Later a TV series, Fargo (2014- ).

Oscars: Best Actress (McDormand), Original Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Director. Cannes: Best Director.

Last word: “We wanted to write a movie that was a “true story” sort of genre. We thought that if we did something where we told the audience up front was a true story, that they’d allow you to do things they wouldn’t normally allow you to do, if they thought it was fiction. So it allowed us to introduce the heroine after 40 minutes without pissing people off. Or Fran’s scene with the Japanese guy that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the plot. It’ll make people more accepting if they’re not prepped for a thriller. That way they’ll be like ‘Well, it must’ve happened this way, ’cause it’s true, right?'” (Joel Coen, The Hollywood Interview)



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