Joel And Ethan Coen
Snow most often appears in the movies as the signifier of Christmas cheer. It may be cold outside, but it looks beautiful and everyone has a rosy glow on their faces and in their hearts. Fargo is different. From the blizzard which rages in the opening scenes through to the blood-soaked slush of the conclusion, snow hides and hinders all those enmeshed within the film’s dark story.
Moving between the semi-Arctic wastes of North Dakota and the relative civilisation of Minneapolis, Fargo portrays the attempt of debt-ridden car salesman Jerry Lundegaard to have his own wife kidnapped in order to extract a million dollar ransom from his overbearing father-in-law. Lundegaard hires the two ne’er do wells Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud to take on the job. On their return from Minneapolis with Lundegaard’s wife, a cop and two tourists notice something amiss and subsequently end up dead on the roadside. It is left to heavily pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson to unravel the mystery while Lundegaard desperately tries to ensure the safe return of his wife and the delivery of the ransom…
From the outset of Fargo, the Coen Brothers are already playing tricks with the audience. A caption announces that this is a true story with only the names changed. But the American press have been unable to find anything remotely similar to the film’s events in their archives. Stylistically, the film projects coldness throughout, every character wrapped in layers and shivering about their business, whether normal or nefarious. Yet this is the warmest movie the Coens have made since Raising Arizona, largely due to the presence of police chief Gunderson (Frances McDormand).
As she follows the trail of Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Grimsrud (Peter Stromare), the very normality of Gunderson’s life is understatedly seen as the source of her stability and contentment. Gunderson’s endearing Scandinavian inflected accent, which is likely to be imitated for weeks after by filmgoers, is one example of the comedic elements which are juxtaposed with the macabre events that she tries to understand. And it is not just a deductive understanding that Gunderson seeks, but an emotional explanation as to why these events could have happened at all.
This focus on the “ordinary” perspective is an effective counterpoint to the actions of Showalter and Grimsrud. Buscemi and Stromare’s superb performances as archetypal American lowlife (Showalter all raw nerves and embittered underdog, Grimsrud utterly enigmatic and psychotic) gives a wry form of absurdity amidst the kidnapping and killing. The behaviour of the hapless car salesman Jerry Lundesgaard (William H. Macy) takes this absurdity to the extreme; utterly unsuited to dealings with the likes of Showalter and Grimsrud, his frantic attempts to regain control over the spiralling chain of events are simultaneously pathetic, comic and tender.
Fargo is a superb return to form after the vacuity of the Coen Brothers’ last outing, The Hudsucker Proxy. Its plot presents both the obvious and unexpected, while the characters’ idiosyncrasies are deftly drawn out over the course of the film. The final, perfect paradox is that Marge Gunderson’s incomprehension of Showalter and Grimsrud’s actions is exactly what provides the audience with the insight into both her life and theirs. Fargo is a movie with cold hands and a warm heart.