THIS 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.
“I guess we were about three weeks into the shooting when I said, tell me a little bit about the case… The actual case. And they said, ‘no, it’s just made up’. I said, no but I mean you know the one, the story that it’s based on. They said, ‘It’s not based on any story, we just made it up’.”
- William H. Macy
The opening title card to “Fargo”, above, is… in the plainest terms, complete bullshit.
The film is not based on a true story. It was a calculated way to get an audience to buy into the film, and accept the events as true. The Coens were “setting the hook”.
In order to suck the audience in to their tale of conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder, they would lead the film off with a lie.
It was a genius idea. I’m sure many people still believe “Fargo” is a factual recreation (especially since there have been similar crimes). It’s that type of original thinking that illustrates why Joel and Ethan Coen are two of the most acclaimed filmmakers working today.
Ethan earned a degree in philosophy from Princeton. Joel studied film at NYU, then worked as a production assistant on industrial films and music videos prior to becoming an assistant editor on Sam Raimi’s first feature film, “The Evil Dead” (1981). Three years later, he and his brother would write and direct their first film together, 1983’s “Blood Simple”. Between then and 1996’s “Fargo”, the two released “Raising Arizona”, “Miller’s Crossing”, “Barton Fink”, and “The Hudsucker Proxy”. Though all were great movies to varying degrees, only “Raising Arizona” connected at the box office (taking in $23 million). None of the others eclipsed the $10 million mark.
It was “Fargo” that would get the movie going public to see them as great directors.
“Fargo” is a violent crime drama, full of dark comedy.
In Minnesota in 1987, a desperate, broke car salesman (William H. Macy) hires a couple of criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife. They’ll keep her safe, he’ll negotiate the ransom from her wealthy father, at the end, they’ll all split the loot.
Of course, Lundegaard (the car salesman) underestimates the violent tendencies of these men. He also underestimates the numerous things that could go wrong with such a plot… all the myriad complications that could arise.
Things go awry and turn violent very quickly.
Enter Marge Gunderson.
Marge, certainly isn’t your prototypical crime drama hero. In fact, she may intentionally be the antithesis. Marge is police chief in a small town. She’s happily married, and seven months pregnant. When the kidnappers commit a multiple homicide on the frozen stretch of highway passing through her jurisdiction, she’s called in to investigate.
Marge figures out what took place quickly, and immediately starts narrowing in on the killer’s trail. She’s obviously razor-sharp.
But she’s more than that.
She’s “Minnesota nice”.
Wikipedia defines “Minnesota nice” as “the stereotypical behavior of people born and raised in Minnesota to be courteous, reserved, and mild-mannered. The cultural characteristics of Minnesota nice include a polite friendliness, an aversion to confrontation, a tendency toward understatement, a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out, emotional restraint, and self-deprecation.”
That super polite behavior, accompanied with her strong, regional accent, makes Marge Gunderson a unique and special character. Especially for a violent crime drama. You simply don’t expect to have the lead cop be a pregnant woman with a sing-song accent who’s always saying things such as “Oh Geez”, “Yah?” and “You Betcha”.
Therein lies the charm of “Fargo”. It’s a violent tale of a crime gone wrong, complete with criminals who kill those who get in their way and then eventually turn on each other, and a man who slowly burns on a turning spit, roasting in guilt and anxiety as his dim-witted plan backfires on himself and everyone around him. But it’s set in the super polite Minnesota heartland, where everyone is smiling and friendly, in spite of the bitter cold outside. It’s a juxtaposition that comes across as completely absurd, and thus, comical.
The Coens grew up in Minnesota, and they wanted to make a film set in that world. The two of them describe it as “Siberia, with family restaurants”.
Every word the characters said was written into the script, by them. Which is amazing considering all the stammering of Macy’s Lundegaard character and all of Marge’s “nice” affectations. The Coens found a way to capture the dialect and create these colorful characters in the script, and then brought them to life in a frozen, white-out setting onscreen. Eventually arriving at a film that had a completely original and unique (if not mildly bizarre) feel.
Which isn’t to diminish the role of the cast, certainly.
Macy was originally called in to read for the part of the state trooper. But the Coens liked his accent and asked him to read for the Lundegaard part. He read, and they asked him if he’d like to work on it overnight and come in and read again the next day. He did. Later, however, Macy heard they were still auditioning actors for the role in New York City. So, at the risk of alienating them by being pushy, he flew out and got in front of them again. He told them he was afraid they were going to mess up the film by giving the part to another actor. He felt that it was the role he was born to play.
He was right.
Of course, the character is a schmuck.
With his half-baked kidnapping scheme, and his mishandling of things on his end, Lundegaard deserves every wrong that visits him. You can see how he arrived at where he is in life, too, with his stammering, push over nature. To me the Coens brilliantly deconstruct him for the audience with one scene where he needs to scrape the ice off his windshield. In frustration over the way things have been unraveling, he hacks at the ice rapidly in anger at one point, to no avail. He loses his temper in a bit of a fit and slams the scraper against the windshield, causing it to bounce off into the snow. After a moment, he resigns himself to his fate and glumly picks it back up and starts again. The powerlessness, the frustration, the glum resignation to his fate… Lundegaard is all right there in one moment.
Standing in stark contrast is Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson.
Gunderson is chipper and optimistic. Safe and secure in her relationship. Maternal, through her pregnancy. She’s bright and clever (in spite of being too nice to see through the lies she’s told at a meeting with an old friend from high school who has a crush on her). She represents the goodness, and wholesomeness of the world in which these crimes are being committed. I think it’s left to the “Fargo” audience to decide which world view is aberrant, hers or Lundegaards.
McDormand does an incredible job. The role was written for her (She and Joel Coen have been married since the early 80s, after meeting on “Blood Simple”), but she still had to work with a dialogue coach in order to nail the accent. The pregnancy suit she wore was filled with bird seed, to give it weight. It all came together into a brilliant performance that would win her an Academy Award.
With Steve Buscemi and Peter Sormare rounding out the cast as the two violent criminals – one rapid talking, the other almost completely silent – and the Coen brothers directing, the film was loaded with talent, and bound to be something special.
The brilliance of “Fargo”, I believe, is that on initial viewing, it’s a straight up crime thriller. It’s completely possible to take it (almost) totally seriously. A viewer might even find it to be bleak… unsettling. There really are no winners except Marge, and many, many people meet untimely ends. Subsequent viewings reveal the dark comedy within, though, and so many things become funny. In fact, AFI has it at #93 on their “100 Years… 100 Laughs”, their list of the best American comedy films. The relationship between Buscemi and Stormare, the fumbling befuddled putz that is Macy’s Lundegaard, and of course McDormand’s wide-eyed, smiling, chipper Marge wading neck-deep into a horrendous crime.
“Fargo” was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (William H. Macy) and Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins). Frances McDormand won for Best Actress, and the Coens won for Best Original Screenplay.
AFI placed it at #84 on their “100 Years… 100 Movies” listing, though it slipped off the charts on the 10th Anniversary Edition.
It was selected for the National Film Registry in 2006.
It’s a remarkable film, to me. It’s a comedic crime thriller set in a world that’s real, but will strike most as off kilter. It features one of the most unlikely heroines you’ll see in film, but one who’s undeniably winsome. At the end of the day, the sweet, maternal officer of the law takes down the evil doers and snuggles with her husband in bed, talking about 3 cent stamps.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.