Fargo (1996) / Thriller-Comedy

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, language and sexuality
Running time: 98 min.

Cast: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare
Director:  Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Review published February 21, 2003

Although the blurb at the beginning states that Fargo is based on a true story, it's actually not.  Oh, those wacky Coen brothers (The Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink) are an odd couple, aren't they? 

The film starts off with William H. Macy (Down Periscope, Benny & Joon), desperate for funds now that he has run into financial difficulty, hiring a couple of goons to kidnap his wife and offer for ransom, because he wants to extort money from her rich father to the tune of a million dollars.  However, these two aren't the most professional men for the job, because one talks too much with little to show for it, while the other says little but is prone to homicidal outbursts.  Plans go completely awry when they kill a police officer that pulled them over shortly after the snatching, and now police officer Marge Gunderson (McDormand, Lone Star) is on the case, a lone little lady who is pregnant, tracking down a couple of killers that aren't going to go down lightly.

Although Fargo is the least artistically adventurous of the Coen brothers' films, many people regard it as their best.  It's their only film to get nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (admittedly, it was not a great year for movies), and Frances McDormand won Best Actress, even though she is in less than half of the movie.  William H. Macy might have gotten the nod for Best Supporting Actor, but in my opinion, that should have rightfully gone to the brilliant performance by Steve Buscemi (Trees Lounge, Billy Madison), who makes every scene he is in that much better.  This is some of the best character work I've seen in any movie, featuring some of the best character actors, and with a writer/director team known for endless subtle touches, it's a film you can watch again and again, and never tire of.

Almost everything about Fargo is top-notch.  It's a great script, full of sparkling wit and originality.  I'm not sure how they come up with all of the notions they do, but it's truly an inspired piece of work.  The direction feels effortless, but it's definitely not.  You have whimsical humor mixed with some of the most brutal violence on film, yet there is no unevenness to be found anywhere.  McDormand, Macy and Buscemi are richly defined personalities and very funny.  It's not necessarily an economical film, as there are whole scenes which have nothing to do with the main story, such as the meeting between McDormand and Steve Park, the lonely friend from the past that tries to have an affair with her.  Yet, these scenes are so humorous, I would never want them removed.

Now, I know you must be wondering how I can gush over a film and not rank it higher than I do.  I suppose I should explain that while I enjoy Fargo immensely, it just doesn't take it to another level artistically, or strike a chord in a depth of emotion.  I also consider it inferior to the Coen brothers' previous films, all of which I find to be even more well-written and original.  It's a very good film, I just can't commit to calling it a great film like others have done.

Fargo is the most readily accessible of the Coen brothers films, and it's probably the only film of theirs I wouldn't just recommend to their fans...it's enjoyable for most.  There is some graphic violence in the film, so you may not want to watch this with the children or someone who is skittish about such things.  It's the best case example that the Coens could be great mainstream filmmakers if they really wanted to, but considering their other work, I'm more than content that they aren't. 

Qwipster's rating:

2003 Vince Leo