There’s a twisted part of me that recognizes Fargo (1996) as a comedy. I don’t think the Coen Brothers would contest this. In fact, I think they were going for comedy all along.
Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) and Letterboxd have Fargo labeled under the genres of Drama, Crime, and Thriller.
But, when I first saw this film via HBO at a hotel with my parents while scoping out Gonzaga University for my future, my dad and I laughed at the “yah, you betchas,” the pathetically nervous William H. Macy car salesman who gums up vehicle serial numbers to expand his inventory, the slow yet charming observations of France McDormand’s husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), and, yes, my dad and I laughed (and gasped) at the wood chipper scene. (Note: my mom didn’t laugh at any of this.)
Apparently, all of these “events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987,” and then that statement was debunked by the Coen Brothers, only to be reestablished as true two years ago. I guess there really was a General Motors car salesman who committed numbers fraud, and, unfortunately, a Connecticut woman named Helle Crafts actually did encounter a similar fate with a wood chipper.
Fargo is simply about the car salesman who sets up the kidnapping of his wife with two thugs in order to gain ransom money to pay off his debts. It is bleak yet funny and one of the oddest, greatest films I have ever seen.
So, why Fargo? Why now?
Because it is up to us to find the humor in this scary world and use that humor to not just cope but laugh.
I will always attest that the most seasoned eye for film was Roger Ebert. He analyzed film more through a human lens than a scholarly one, and the unspoken truth is that movies are made more to be human than objects of study.
Ebert said, “A great movie acts like a window in our box of space and time, opening us to other times and other lands.”
As unearthly and tundra-filled a setting in Fargo – including characters beyond despicable – I can only feel grateful to be in the safety of my home with the ability to experience such a time and a land and not actually have to be there.
“He’s a little guy, kinda funny lookin.” This is the local bartender’s description of Carl Showalter (played by Steve Buscemi) who is, indeed, “funny looking.” He’s a sicko. He’s rampant. He’s one of the two thugs who talks too much. But, the other guy is far more grievous, and he doesn’t talk at all. His name is Gaear Grimsrud, played by the real “name,” Rolf Peter Ingvar Storm. (He’s the one with the wood chipper idea.)
But, maybe Gaear isn’t as evil as the beyond dense car salesman who devises the entire kidnapping of his wife to begin with…
Jerry Lundegaard (my God, these names), is a blockhead in a putrid green, overstuffed winter coat with Velcro hood. He personifies a Michael Scott without a brain.
Jerry, the Fargo simpletons, and their brown Oldsmobiles are accompanied by the immaculate film score of Carter Burwell. The bass and snare drum kick into gear the snowfall on a wasteland too foreign to relate to and made only for the movies. Or, is it?
Thankfully, there’s a good heart in the movie, and it is found in the Oscar-winning performance of France McDormand, who plays Marge Gunderson, a pregnant cop with the patience of a saint. She is more than the protagonist; she is the caretaker and hope incarnate for these poor, desolate souls.
Marge doesn’t necessarily see right through Jerry’s messy crime, former classmate’s sob story lie, or partner’s ignorance (“I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there, Lou.”), but like a nun full of grace, she does give them the benefit of the doubt.
Her detective work is unobtrusive, charming, and downright hilarious. Although this movie is slick with dark humor and guilty pleasure laughs, the Coen Brothers’ concoction and Frances McDormand character is the humor of relief.
Marge reminds us that this whole (true) story and groundbreaking film is all “for a little bit of money.”
“There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that? And, here yah are, and it’s a beautiful day.”
Fargo remains a masterpiece for me, a groundbreaker, and yes, a comedy. Fargo is the reason we have movies in the first place.
Fargo (1996) ***** out of *****
On Amazon Prime