Fresh Eyes: Fargo (1996)
I have been a fan of the Coen Brothers for a while. They are essentially built into my knowledge of cinema, as No Country for Old Men was one of the first R-rated films I ever saw (I know, I know, I'm young). I've always enjoyed their writing style, as they seamlessly mesh serious subject matter with snappy, quick-witted writing, keeping one from undercutting the other in the process. So, for this installment of Fresh Eyes, I figured I'd have a look at one of their films that managed to slip by me up until now; Fargo.
Fargo is the story of Jerry Lundegaard, an anxiety-ridden car salesmen played by the ever wonderful William H. Macy, who hires two criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife to in order to con his father-in-law out of a large amount of money, don'tcha know. Things go awry when Stormare ends up killing a cop and three innocent people, which puts Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) on the trail of these interwoven crimes.
The central performances in Fargo are magnetic and immensely entertaining. William H. Macy is one of the most dependable character actors in the industry, and he's firing on all cylinders here. His anxiety stands in sharp contrast to the generally folksy attitude of the people around him, specifically the peaceful cheeriness of McDormand's performance, who bears witness to arguably the most gruesome act in the entire film and takes it in stride. That all being said, the performance that stood out to me the most was Peter Stormare's quiet, brooding psychopath, Grimsrud. I'm most familiar with Stormare's performance in the horror game Until Dawn, wherein he chews every single piece of scenery that comes near him. Comparing that kind of acting to this much more subdued take was a bit of a shock, but Stormare remains just as entertaining.
Roger Deakins' cinematography helps build on the tension between the dark and quaint atmosphere established by these performances. The shot composition struck me as fairly simple, reflecting the uncomplicated way people think about life in Minnesota. That being said, the framing extends to the darker and more upsetting aspects of the film, which adds another layer of grotesqueness to the proceedings. Seeing a leg being stuffed into a wood chipper is bad enough already, but when framed by a run-of-the-mill, steady medium shot, it just makes the action more horrific.
There's also an anti-capitalist bent running through Fargo. The entire plot is put in motion due to Jerry Lundegaard being under financial scrutiny. Jerry also gets shafted by his father-in-law, who assumes Jerry is bringing him a deal and not seeking a loan, and then takes the investment possibility away from him entirely. This quest for money also results in the death of eight people and one arrest. The only person who really ends up happy at the end of the film is Marge Gunderson, the only main player in the plot not involved in the attempt to personally benefit from the money swirling around this film. Marge even remarks upon how silly it is that so many people had to die over a tiny amount of money, which seems immensely relevant in the midst of the health care debate gripping the United States right now.
Despite my familiarity with the Coen's other works, I wasn't sure what to expect going into Fargo. I'd only ever heard good things, and any film that gets adapted into a critically praised TV show has to be pretty decent. Having now seen it, I'm not disappointed per se, as every piece of the film is gorgeous, entertaining, and well-constructed. However, I may have set my expectations too high, as I probably won't be revisiting this nearly as much as I come back to No Country for Old Men, True Grit, or O Brother, Where Art Thou?