Fargo (1996) — More than just ‘that woodchipper film’

“Oh, you betcha!”

Justin’s rating: Proud to be a midwesterner!

Justin’s review: Each and every time I’ve seen Fargo, Joel and Ethan Coen’s classic 1996 crime story, I’ve gotten the distinct impression that the brothers are absolutely messing with their audience. Its title makes you think that this is all about North Dakota, whereas most of it is actually set in Minnesota. You take it too seriously, and up pops absurd and homespun humor to make you chuckle. You laugh too much, and then the movie jukes and gets dark. Nobody’s terribly bright in the way that characters often are in Hollywood films, yet it’s almost like they’re snickering at the audience for really buying into the fact that Fargo is, as it claimed, to be a “true story” when in fact it is not.

This infuriating approach is why, in my opinion, that Fargo ends up being one of those very rare motion pictures that was adored by audiences, critics, and film school professors. In fact, in my college film class, we spent a week dissecting this movie. I won’t go film school nerd on you or anything, but I will say that there’s so much more here than initially meets the eye.

Because initially, Fargo is kind of a mundane, almost anti-climactic tale. It follows Jerry (William H. Macy), a guy who’s gone as far as he can in his extremely modest life (he manages a car dealership for his father-in-law) and is nearly broke. Eager for quick cash, he hires two goons to kidnap his wife and extort a ransom from her dad. This goes extremely bad from the get-go, as the criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) aren’t getting those five-star reviews on Yelp and a whole bunch of people get dead. Jerry flips out, a pregnant sheriff named Marge (Frances McDormand) starts to investigate, and midwestern accents are bent to the breaking point.

The weird thing is that the plot may be the least consequential part of Fargo. It’s nominally a crime story and a mystery, but since we know both sides and the stakes seem kind of low (again, for a Hollywood story), that’s not the main attraction. What is is the general weirdness and subversive humor that the Coen brothers bring to their projects. They revel in creating characters that are unusual and multi-faceted, ones that are so interesting that you actually don’t mind hanging out with them for long periods of time — whether they be the good guys, the bad guys, or the idiots in-between.

The Coens have done many excellent films over the years, but Fargo is easily their best — and likely to stay that way. It’s one of those “if you see only one Coen brothers pictures, make it this” sort of deals. So, you know, see it already if you haven’t.

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