Fargo (1996)
February 26, 2018 6:28 PM - Subscribe

Jerry Lundegaard's inept crime falls apart due to his and his henchmen's bungling and the persistent police work of the quite pregnant Marge Gunderson.

Senses of Cinema: At best, we might say that Fargo offers “a white and a funny side, too,” with its bleak, blinding snowscapes and pervasive, though dry and still very dark, comedy.

Indeed, this duality between darkness and light informs all of the Coen Brothers’ work: even their most disturbing film, No Country for Old Men (2007), has its share of humourous moments; and their zanier, more comedic works – from Raising Arizona (1987) to The Big Lebowski (1998) and Burn After Reading (2008) – are haunted by nightmares, kidnappings, and even murder. Of all their films, though, Fargo strikes the most perfect blend of these two competing, or rather complementary, impulses.

Such a balancing act between polar opposites is the stuff of mythology, and critics have noted the mythological – at times even epic – dimensions of the Coen Brothers’ ouvre. At the same time, their work is often characterised by a postmodernist, self-aware sense of irony that undercuts a mythologised view of “American life”, even as it enacts that very mythos. Such is the dynamic of Fargo.

NYTimes: As "Fargo" plays out the kidnapping and its aftermath, it sometimes turns grisly with the sharp ferocity that is another staple of the Coens' noir style. The violence is so quick it appears cartoonish, but there's no mistaking the fact that this tale is fundamentally grim. Yet the film makers' absurdist humor and beautifully honed storytelling give it a winning acerbity, a quirky appreciation of the sheer futility captured on screen. "There's more to life than a little money, you know," Marge tells a malefactor. "Don't you know that?" The characters in "Fargo" mostly wouldn't have a clue about what Marge means.

Roger Ebert: Marge Gunderson is one of a handful of characters whose names remain in our memories, like Travis Bickle, Tony Manero, HAL 9000, Fred C. Dobbs. They are completely, defiantly themselves_in movies that depend on precisely who they are. Marge is the chief in Brainerd, Minn., still has bouts of morning sickness, eats all the junk food she can get her hands on, speaks in a “you betcha” Minnesota accent where “yeah,” pronounced ya, is volleyed like a refrain. She's a natural police officer, very smart; at the crime scene she quickly and correctly reconstructs what happened, and determines there were two killers, one big, one small. Her male partner, not so swift, fails to realize that “DLR” indicates a dealer plate; that inspires one of the movie's famous lines: “I'm not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there, Lou.”

Slant: Do you have to be a Minnesotan to really get Fargo? As the saying goes, you could do a lot worse. But even beyond the regional colloquialisms and the broad accents, which most of us in the Twin Cities are quick to claim are more the province of the outstate crowd, is another smartly constructed, wickedly executed black comedy about the inherent weirdness of people, a satire reflecting how humanity’s grand, inevitably failed gestures (represented here by cinematographer Roger Deakins’s Lawrence of Arabia-pinching opening shots and composer Carter Burwell’s insistently, hilariously ethnic dirges) are no match for mankind’s pettiness and stupidity. In the end, all the righteous bloodshed in the world isn’t even worth a three-cent stamp.


30 Years of Coens: Fargo

24 Things We Learned from Roger Deakins’ Commentary for ‘Fargo’

‘Fargo’: The Unforgettable Dark Comedy that Set the Coen Brothers Up as a Recognizable Voice in American Cinema

Fargo turns 20 today. Its fans are still arguing about this scene.

The Coen Brothers Reveal ‘Fargo’ Is Based On A True Story After All
posted by MoonOrb (25 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Definitely in my top ten. I find it downright weird that people think No Country for Old Men is the clearly better film. I first saw it in Cambridge, where there was some derisive laughter at the characters' initial appearances and accent, and enjoyed watching the audience get blizzarded into submission.

Every time I rewatch I'm struck again by the importance of the casting. I love McDormand's performance to bits, but in some ways Macy's is more important, because he has to take this visibly downtrodden, kicked-puppy character and convincingly show the utter disaster he's capable of engineering by never thinking and always being selfish, and yet without ever making him totally loathsome. (He's deeply flawed but not quite loathsome because he always gets himself to believe sincerely that his stupid schemes aren't going to blow up in everyone's faces.) This became especially clear to me when I tried to watch the series, which I'm in the minority in not liking. It's obviously not trying to reproduce the original note for note, but Martin Freeman's version of the character is conceived in a much stupider and more cliched way and played much more hammily.

"He was funny-lookin'. More'n most people, even."
posted by praemunire at 8:03 PM on February 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yeah, the sets are painfully accurate.

It's also weird to me how many of the linked articles, etc., seem to read the locals as slow-witted. They're not. They're just really, really fucking normal, in a way that doesn't get a lot of Hollywood play. I've sat through nine million of those conversations in my day and I've generally not thought the people involved were stupid, just average and living lives that don't challenge them to go much further or expose them to much that is new. Which is way closer to the mundane human condition everywhere than NYCers doing our "let me try to shave three seconds off the execution of my plan for world domination" shtick.
posted by praemunire at 9:58 PM on February 26, 2018 [13 favorites]

ActorFACT: The "Go Bears." hooker lady is played by Melissa Peterman, who also played Barbra Jean in Reba McEntire's show.
That's a fact of dubious value, but I like it anyway.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 12:50 AM on February 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

No one's ever done "pathetic" in film like Jerry getting arrested. I get a perverse kick out of watching that scene.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 2:39 AM on February 27, 2018 [7 favorites]

In my experience, this film either works for people or it doesn't. The reason it doesn't work for some people is that they can't reconcile the deadpan humour and absurdity of the film with the brutality of the crimes on display.

The scene that will always stick with me is Steve Buscemi burying the briefcase in the snowbank; having grown up on the Canadian prairies, I was snorting with laughter before he even looked up to see the vast, unbroken line of fence and snow.

This became especially clear to me when I tried to watch the series, which I'm in the minority in not liking. It's obviously not trying to reproduce the original note for note, but Martin Freeman's version of the character is conceived in a much stupider and more cliched way and played much more hammily.

I just finished the first season last night. I very much enjoyed it, but I would say that I didn't take Freeman's character as any type of version of Jerry Lundegaard; there is a similarity in the beginning, but the character of the TV series has a different arc. Season 1 felt very much like they mixed the movie of Fargo with No Country For Old Men, and added some dashes of Burn After Reading, and Martin's character becomes something very different by the end of it all. At any rate, I enjoyed it a great deal, but part of that was getting past the idea I had that it had anything to do with the movie.
posted by nubs at 8:27 AM on February 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is exhibit a in my theory that every Coen brothers film is drawn from a single episode of Steve and Sharon in 1976.
posted by maxsparber at 8:32 AM on February 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I continue to think that the Coens made No Country for Old Men largely because audiences failed to get what Fargo was really saying. They thought it was funny because of the accents and the general weirdness. And the Coens let them get away with that by providing that comforting, reassuring ending where Marge catches all the bad guys who are still alive to be caught, lectures them on proper morality, and then goes home to her nice little world of duck stamps and a baby on the way.

That said, sure, evil creeps in wherever people are greedy or desperate or just plain stupid enough to let it, but it will be contained in the end and the world where people are decent and things make sense is ultimately preserved.

So they did No Country, where there's no such relief at the end, just a sense that the looming, otherworldly evil that's crept in has slowly seeped into everything and there's no safe place to go back to and no way to even face it. A man would have to put his soul at hazard, says Sheriff Bell. Marge's soul is strong and pure and it drives evil back. Her soul is never at hazard. There's no looking away from the evil in No Country the way you could in Fargo. You can't ignore it and laugh at the eccentric local folks. It's there, and it's changing you, and you can't get away from it.
posted by Naberius at 11:42 AM on February 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

Martin Freeman's version of the character

Thank you for the warning. I adore this movie, and have been encouraged to watch the series, but the encourager hasn't seen Freeman in anything else, so I'm taking this as encouragement to not take a crack at it. I have Freeman seriously personally typecast as young Bilbo and Dr Watson, and thus far have not managed to like anything else he's done (I do try!).

At first I couldn't belive these guys had also done my beloved Raising Arizona and Blood Simple, but yeap. They did.
posted by tilde at 11:44 AM on February 27, 2018

I'd say this is in my top five favorite films, although I would want to put at least two other Coen films there, so my top five list apparently includes ten or more items.

I always say about this film that when watching in the theater, I whispered to my friends that, no, the accents weren't absurdly overdone, my MN/WI relatives all sound exactly like this.

I don't know -- I sort this of feel like this is a perfect film. I've seen it many times and I think there's not a single wrong note.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:03 PM on February 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

no, the accents weren't absurdly overdone, my MN/WI relatives all sound exactly like this.

Excuse me, do not overlook da Yoopers!
posted by praemunire at 3:00 PM on February 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

The film really captures the depressing nature of scraping frost off your car windows.
posted by drezdn at 3:37 PM on February 27, 2018 [19 favorites]

I love this movie, but I have to disagree about the accents. I actually grew up in Fargo, ND, and only had an in-law with an accent that sounded like the movie. I think of it as really an elderly person's accent, in my experience, and most people may have had an accent but definitely not that strong as the ones in the movie/TV show.
posted by not that mimi at 4:47 PM on February 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

I worked as an in-house legal editor for many years, and for three of those years I worked on case judgments, which is a document in which the judge summarizes the facts of the case and gives his/her judgment and the reasons for his/her judgment. A hundred or so of them crossed my desk every week, and though I wasn't really reading them I usually did take in the gist of the judgment, and there are many that remain in my memory over 17 years after leaving that particular job. For me those cases contained the entire breadth and depth of human error and frailty and monstrosity. They were horrifying, they were hilarious, they were stupid, and sometimes they were all three. Then when I saw this movie a few years after leaving that job, I thought it was such a good portrayal of what real crime looks like. We're used to film portrayals of crime that make it look intricate and thrilling and interesting. Fargo depicts its crime as crime actually is: a banal, destructive, and wretchedly managed chain of events that lays tragic waste to people's lives.
posted by orange swan at 5:52 PM on February 27, 2018 [43 favorites]

I think of it as really an elderly person's accent, in my experience, and most people may have had an accent but definitely not that strong as the ones in the movie/TV show.

I was delighted when, on a trip to drop a friend off at his counselor job at a German language camp in the Minnesota Northwoods, there was a teenage girl working a gas station counter in Bemidji with the best example of that accent I've ever heard. There are shades of it where my extended family lives, but yeah, it's mostly an older person's accent there that's going the way of lutefisk at a family gathering - it's awesome that someone younger than me was going full Fargo.
posted by jason_steakums at 8:32 PM on February 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think that the "elderly person's accent" is really more of a rural accent, and the reason that you mostly hear it in the elderly is that the country in the region, like anywhere else, is emptying out. I lived with a foster family for about a year in the mid-seventies, and they had roots in the area; I spent some quality time in the outskirts of an unincorporated community whose official population was in the single digits. They knew all the Ole and Lena jokes and told the one about how lutefisk was an Irish plot to kill the Norwegians that backfired.

I revisited Fargo in the early aughts and people still seemed resentful of the movie, but I think that it's much in the mode of any city aspiring to a broader (and, unfortunately, more generic) cosmopolitanism being embarrassed by the country cousins. Some of the same people who didn't like this movie dug O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:56 AM on February 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

no, the accents weren't absurdly overdone, my MN/WI relatives all sound exactly like this.

I had this fight a while ago on here for some reason. There are several accents in Minnesota. In the southeast, the accent tends to be a lot more of the generalized flat Midwestern accent (it's my accent; nobody has every guessed I am a Minnesotan, although that rounded o will sometimes make an appearance.) In rural Minnesota, especially as you head North and West toward the Dakotas, you get a lot more of the accent from Fargo, although the thickest I have ever heard it is across the border in South Dakota. And in the Iron Range they have their own accent which I am incapable of describing, although Bob Dylan has a version of it and that's why he doesn't sound like any of the characters on Fargo.
posted by maxsparber at 8:03 AM on February 28, 2018

I'm 53 and the relatives I'm thinking of are a grandmother and great aunts and uncles, so not only old people at this point, but dead people.

Not only that, only one great uncle and his family lived in a metropolitan area -- all the rest lived in very small towns and farms.

More in my direct, extensive experience, movies and TV often depict anyone In Texas with a strong accent, but even in the smaller cities like Amarillo and Lubbock, most of the city people have only a faint accent. You only infrequently hear a drawl in DFW or Houston or SA or Austin. But as soon as you leave any of these cities and enter the small rural towns, especially in both east and west Texas, you hear strong, stereotypical accents.

A lot of this kind of argument is really about the urban/rural cultural divide -- increasingly, city people in the US are fairly homogeneous, while the small town and rural folk maintain distinctive regional variation.

That said, often people underestimate how much of this regional dialect they've retained. I found it very odd and amusing that my Canadian in-laws and my spouse disavowed any use of sentence-final "eh" even as I heard them use it. Not stereotypically often, but occasionally. These were TO folk.

Anyway, I don't doubt that the dialectical flourishes of Fargo are not very common these days, especially in the cities. But I was referring to older people I met in the early 80s and, also, this movie was made 22 years ago.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:48 AM on February 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

this movie was made 22 years ago.

This movie was what now?
posted by maxsparber at 9:18 AM on February 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

Huh I didn't realize that Joel Coen has been married to Frances McDormand since... long before this movie.
posted by atoxyl at 11:30 AM on February 28, 2018

Maaan, a couple of thoughts on this one...

1. I saw it in Brainerd when it first came out; I was an undergrad, dating a girl from Brainerd at the time and we were back at her parents' place for a weekend. We went to see fargo at the Brainerd with a bunch of her friends from town, none of us knowing at all what we were going to see (I'd seen Raising Arizona by then, but didn't recognize the Coen name at all). We all came out of it completely nonplussed, and my girlfriend and her friends swore they could remember the Brainerd parts happening when they were kids. Which: uhhhh.

2. I use that completely-not-getting-it-on-release viewing as a handy marker for a point when I wasn't yet engaging with art at an adult level. When I saw it the second time, I appreciated what was going on and thought it was a masterpiece, while the first time I thought it had just been a funny-looking but weirdly-executed murder mystery with funny accents.
posted by the phlegmatic king at 12:27 PM on February 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

This became especially clear to me when I tried to watch the series, which I'm in the minority in not liking.

I too didn't like the first season of the series. So much so I held of on watching season 2 until some people who are usually very good at knowing what I might like kept telling me to watch it. I consider it a masterpiece, second only to the Wire in my personal television viewing experience. Season 3 started a little slow but then really became quite fabulous as well.

It was Freeman for me in season 1 primarily. And though I realize the coldness of it was largely part of the many points I just couldn't take it but having said that the other characters were great.
posted by juiceCake at 8:24 PM on February 28, 2018

I saw this on opening weekend at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis. It was a packed house and every single person was in on every single joke (and rooting for Marge). Biggest laugh was the "Go Bears" scene - it was just an explosion of laughter that began at the mention of Normandale.

It does come down to Marge. Like the sheriff in No Country, she represents all that is good, smart, and decent of humanity against a very bleak landscape. Marge is still out there, leading us with a torch burning against the darkness.
posted by Ber at 8:35 AM on March 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

I was thrilled when I visited the Fargo Theater and saw they have a chainsaw carving of Marge in their lobby (donated by MGM).

That said, often people underestimate how much of this regional dialect they've retained.

Yep. I compared myself to my grandparents and assumed I had a minimal Minnesotan accent until I was in college and a writing instructor from New York gently informed me that the line "I'll come with" was extremely Minnesotan (my character was not), and later spent a semester in a Speech for Theater course where a delightfully proper voice coach did her best to hammer the accent out of us.
posted by castlebravo at 12:50 PM on March 1, 2018

Apart from this being a fantastic film in looking at the destruction the pursuit of 'a little bit of money' causes, Margie's character is such a destabilisation of the crime busting hero. She's pregnant and pragmatic.

She's respected by her peers (no maverick here) and uses her authority calmly and firmly (no authoritarian take downs) and no one draws negative attention to her gender in the performance of her duties. I like that the film rests on the family story - 'two more months' as the couple embraces in the anticipation of their baby, putting the nefarious plans of criminal others, firmly in the Other camp.

She's unfazed by asking sex questions and handles the scene at the Radisson with her childhood friend's husband brilliantly when he makes a pass at her. She's happily married to a man who paints postage stamps and makes her breakfast.

But the thing I love most amongst all the great things, is that Margie is a female central character who eats, and thinks about eating a lot. It's not often we see women eating in films.
posted by honey-barbara at 7:47 AM on March 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

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