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FargoUSA/United Kingdom 1996
Directed by Joel Coen
Running time 96 minutes
A true crime story rendered as a black comedy by writers Joel and Ethan Coen, Fargo is a small gem of a genre movie beautifully brought to the screen by the Coens' regular collaborator Roger Deakins’ photography and Carter Burwell's music with a cast of character actors in tip-top form.
William H. Macy in his break-out role captures the quiet desperation of Minnesota car salesman Jerry Lundegaard who arranges to have his wife kidnapped by a couple of thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) in order to fleece his father-in-law (Harve Presnell) for the ransom money. Everything goes wrong, blood is spilled and 7 month pregnant local cop, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) sets out to track down the killers. It is hard to accept that what at the level of plot is a terrible story of senseless murder is given a comedic treatment, but that is just the kind of incongruity that the Coens love and that they are loved for. Fargo is a particularly dark example of their proclivities.
Although at times the Coens can come across as too-clever-by-half stylistic synthetists, here they have pulled off their contrivance with finesse. Minnesota boys themselves, they evidently know their home state and manage to infuse the crime story with a distinctively parochial banality (the region is heavily influenced by Scandinavian immigration apparently) that approaches the surreal, a feeling aided by the pristine whiteness of the snowy outdoors which are featured prominently. Most people, with good reason, will probably find the incongruity of murder and humour alienating, but that is the point. Marge sums up the situation at the end of the film when she’s is bringing in the surviving killer (Peter Stormare). Reviewing the chain of tragic events as he sits stony-faced in the back seat she despairs of human folly observing…”and, it’s a beautiful day”.
The banality of violence in and alienated state of American culture is embodied here in a quiet but telling way. Frances McDormand (who is married to Joel Coen) who has since proven to have a much greater range was perhaps over-rated with her Best Actress Oscar whilst her husband and brother-in-law picked up one for Best Original Screenplay for a film that catapulted them into the big league.