TBT: Fargo (1996)

Get the heck out of here, August. Take all your bad vibes with you. Not that this month has been a particularly bad one for watching movies, new and old alike. But, sheesh, would you just please get out of the way so the fall season can begin? And I’m looking forward to more than just good movies as well as lower temperatures — it’s soon the beginning of football and later, the basketball season. And then, the inevitable cold grip of winter. (Although I will say I don’t get to look forward to anything like my friend in the north Ruth does on that front.) Watching this movie today gave me a taste of what she may be dealing with within the next few months, so my thoughts go out to her. I’m thankful I don’t have to deal with the conditions found in

Today’s food for thought: Fargo.

Chilling out since: Friday, April 5, 1996

[DVD]

So Fargo is an odd one. Not purely because of the content — it is quirky and at times pretty uncomfortable, no doubt about it — but owing more to the fact I could barely react after finally undertaking the journey. High production values, coupled with the Coens’ affinity for quirking out and all that are qualities that I admire about it, but if I have a duty to actually love what I’ve watched, then I’ll have to force the feeling.

And yet, I’m not comfortable saying I dislike it either. I’m frustratingly indifferent to the whole thing. Beyond the peculiar accents that implied lots of vocal coaching for the principals, the wood chipper murder scene and Frances McDormand’s unflappable Marge Gunderson, there’s not much about Fargo that will stay with me. To further muddy the waters, I can’t disagree with its success at the 69th Academy Awards ceremony, being nominated for an impressive seven awards and winning two — one for its original screenplay and another honoring McDormand’s lead performance. In fact I see the film just as deserving of a gold statue for its subtle yet effective production design. That’s the trifecta of achievements that has earned Fargo its reputation over the last two decades, at least as I see it.

Do I blame the reputation itself for my own lackluster experience? Maybe a little, but then that kind of argument feels more like an excuse, an object for me to hide behind because     . . . well, you know, popular opinion can be a hell of a tide to swim against. Fargo is so very Coen-esque, but give me The Big Lebowski any day over the farcical trials of a few northern Minnesotans. Of the two dark comedies, bowling alleys made for a more compelling visual motif than a snow-covered highway. But I get the point. Fargo was never intended to uplift and inspire the kind of ‘happy’ laughter The Dude and his oddball friends do. Fargo is downbeat, its amusement derived from the ineptitude of many of its characters. That and the sheer hopelessness of the winter season.

When Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a desperate car dealer, hires a pair of thugs to kidnap his wife in an elaborate scheme to extort nearly one million dollars from her wealthy father (his boss), Wade (Harve Presnell), things go pear-shaped for the criminals, leaving Jerry in an awkward position between them and Wade, who is unaware the actual ransom is only $80,000. Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (a particularly nasty Peter Stormare) are transporting the wife when they’re unexpectedly pulled over by a state trooper just outside of Brainerd. The encounter turns ugly quickly when an enraged Gaear shoots and kills the officer and hunts down the unfortunate kids who happen upon the scene moments later.

“Looks like a triple homicide,” deduces a curious Marge the next day. And, yah, I get what is going on here, too. I’m supposed to be mesmerized by her very un-mesmerizing attire, a uniform of brown and gray, vivid when set against a never ending sea of white. No doubt about it, her presence is visually significant, a kind of modest icon who seizes every opportunity to provide the film (or more critically, viewers) a modicum of reason. Her intuition at the scene of this odd crime scene suggests that, aside from her doting husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch), the coalition for reason in Fargo is considerably weak.

I have a high threshold when it comes to films that are deliberately weird. I get along great with Lebowski, find something thrillingly disturbing in A Serious Man, and even accept characters who are meant to be enjoyed less than they are pitied, people like Llewyn Davis. The Coens managed to at least pique my curiosity even if their collaborative effort failed to fully engage me. Emotionally I was kept at an arm’s reach as I witnessed a crime story devolving into a mere battle of wits between Officer Gunderson and that slimy little Jerry fella. Performances from Buscemi and Stormare helped boost my enthusiasm — more so the former than the latter — and offset this sense of duty I felt for having to put up with Macy’s sniveling little scumbag of a car dealer. (Credit where credit is due, though: my frustration with his character is once again derived from his high caliber acting; if he weren’t good he’d have elicited no reaction from me at all.)

For a film that has been as lauded as it has over the years I exited feeling more or less unchanged, as if I were watching the movie with glazed-over eyes. I kind of feel guilty. While I will forever maintain that Fargo was robbed of a production design award — saying I exited feeling unchanged isn’t quite accurate actually, I just felt cold and lonely at the end — I feel similarly robbed, with expectations perhaps unreasonably elevated to insurmountable heights given its reputation as “an American classic.” What did I miss on my first visit? I suspect I’m going to have to go back and watch again because now the guilt is starting to feel a little more like paranoia.

Recommendation: Fargo is the Coen brothers at perhaps their most idiosyncratic. This is a production filled to the brim with strong performances and the filmmakers’ penchant for finding comedy in the funereal. Aside from McDormand’s policewoman I feel like there’s not much to recommend about this film, despite everything I have ever heard about it. But maybe I just need to sit down and give it another chance. Not exactly a prospect I’m looking forward to though. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

TBTrivia: The snow plow that drives past the motel at the end of the film was not part of the script. Signs in the area warned motorists not to drive through due to filming, but a state employee ignored them.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

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25 thoughts on “TBT: Fargo (1996)

    • You take that back Ashely, that’s blasphemy!!! 😉

      The Big Lebowski is a very . . . strange . . . movie. Even going by Coen standards. But for me it is just such a great time. Fargo is going to take another watch for me I think. It’s almost universally agreed upon it’s top tier Coens, right behind No Country for Old Men.

  1. Oh I loooooove Fargo. For me it is an intoxication mixture if several genre and plot turns and narrative shifts. I find myself glued to it whenever it comes on.

    • I’m going to so have to watch this again. Maybe it was just too late in the day for me to watch a Coen brothers production. I feel like when I watch one of their movies for the first time, it’s not until the second viewing I noticed how much I missed during the first experience. That’s a trait of good filmmaking, of course, but sometimes I get put off by movies I know I’m supposed to love but just can’t. But everyone is saying it’s outstanding so I’ll be watching it again, and fairly soon.

      • You are so right. The Coens sometimes call for a second viewing. That’s how it was for me and Inside Llewyn Davis. They are such crafty filmmakers.

        • Yes and their products are usually pretty dense too. At 98 mins there was a lot to take in here that will probably improve a second watch. 🙂

  2. Great post Tom! I personally love this movie. It’s probably my favorite Coen Brothers flick, but Barton Fink and No Country For Old Men are both very close as well.

    • I think I’m definitely going to have to give this another go, it really didn’t do much for me at first. That said, there are some damn funny parts here and there and I really liked the character of Marge Gunderson. Carl Showalter was good too, I liked the general ineptness of most people involved. I just always had this impression that there was something more going on here but again, I think I just came in with a different set of expectations.

      • The dark humor is one of my favorite things in this movie, I remember this amazing scene between Marge and this asian guy she used to go to school with and just the dialogue and the way that scene unfolds was so fascinating to watch, but I can understand it if you didn’t like it. Maybe giving it another go will help. I’ve seen a lot of movies I didn’t like the first time but liked the second or third time around.

        • That scene was really damn good, you’re right. I also chuckled quite a lot at the infamous wood chipper scene. That was brilliant. I also really enjoyed Carl’s bickerings throughout. Of course I like Buscemi in pretty much anything, he’s great. Truth be told I watched it kinda late, and that might have impacted my ability to focus b/c the more I think of it now the more things I like about it

          • That might be the case, the woodchipper scene is iconic in it’s own right. And yeah I love Steve Buscemi in almost everything. This is probably one of his best supporting performances alongside Reservoir Dogs and The Big Lebowski

  3. Coen Bros. films take a while to appreciate, I think. The first time through I think, “Yeah that was weird but good I guess,” and on repeat viewings I appreciate them more and more. I really didn’t like The Big Lebowski the first time I watched it, but now I love it.

    Also, I just now realized that the filling seen through the top lattice of your “ratings pie” is different than the filling inside, and I can’t handle it mentally. Expect a lawsuit.

    • 😉 My rating system isn’t even shortbread. If anything I should be getting sued over misrepresentation in my ratings graphic.

      I totally feel that way about most of what I’ve seen of the Coen brothers. Whatever it is that makes me (us) want to go back and watch them again is apparently a trademark quality of good filmmakers. Although I don’t know if I’ll be bothered to watch Fargo again. It’s just so out there. And those accents. . . oh man.

  4. Nice review, Tom! That’s okay – I’m not huge on this movie myself. Or any Coen brothers movies, really. Or football or basketball season… I’m so glad I don’t have to deal with that anymore since moving to the UK! 😉 Oh, and I don’t miss snow, either! But I do miss sunshine. God I miss sunshine!!!!!

    • This is now maybe the third Coen movie where I wasn’t impressed on the first go-around. But then I watched Lebowski a couple more times and have since come to love it, and same goes for No Country, but that was more immediately engaging than either this or Lebowski. Llewyn Davis I took to fairly quickly, esp considering how much of a jerk Oscar Isaac was in it. 😉

      So maybe I too am kinda iffy about the Coen brothers overall. Mehhhh

    • Desperately wish I could get excited about baseball, but I just can’t. I did like going to a few games in person though, that made it more fun. 😀

      Yes, after living in TN for so long I’ve grown tired of the miserably hot summers and humidity. The fall is much-anticipated here!

  5. I’m a summer guy so the colder temperatures aren’t my favourite! This is a nice and chilly selection for late August! But what a movie. The Coens at their very best. Thanks for the reminder Tom my boy!

    • I’m not big on winter myself but anything is better than our summers around here!

      Yeah I’ve gotten the impression this is top-notch Coens from several people (not on WP), I’ll have to give this another look I think. Was so not moved by the end of it. Which kind of bothers me haha

  6. Great review Tom. I first watched Fargo I think last year, it was good but I wasn’t blown away. I mainly watched it to prime myself for the TV series which I think is excellent.

    • Yeah that’s where I stand Eddie, I thought it’s good but not incredible. I’ve been curious about how the show stands up. The movie seemed to be perfectly tailored to this confined and singular plot about a kidnapping gone wrong. Wonder how they manage to turn that into a long-running story?

      • Billy Bob Thornton is great in the series and it works well as a self contained season. I heard each season will be a separate story, focused on different characters and possibly different timelines.

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