Flashback: Fargo (1996)

There’s a twisted part of me that considers Fargo (1996) to be a comedy. I don’t think the Coen Brothers would contest this. In fact, I think they were going for comedy all along.

A coworker and friend of mine introduced me to the movie experience collection app, Letterboxd. If you are an avid movie viewer, and you haven’t subscribed to this app yet, it is a must (and we can compare top ten lists!).

Even in Letterboxd, Fargo is 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 through a more 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.)

Gaear and Carl

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 extended hood. He personifies a Michael Scott without a brain.

Jerry Lundegaard

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’s 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.

She 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.”

41 thoughts on “Flashback: Fargo (1996)

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  1. great reminder of an interesting movie – have loved Frances McDormand ever since – & haven’t thought of a wood chipper the same way ever since…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading. Can you imagine watching that wood chipper scene for the first time with your parents (or close ones)? It was such an odd, surprising, and “sick” experience! I’ll never forget it. Loving your blog so far! Nice to meet you!


  2. I just happened to watch this again a couple of weeks ago. I agree it’s more of comedy, but a very dark one at that! In fact I went on a Coen Bros binge and their movies just get better on subsequent viewings. Barton Fink is just brilliant! Probably my favourite from them..
    My kids loved the first 3 vignettes from their most recent Scaggs movie.
    It’s funny how all the praise went to Fargo regarding the Oscars, but their most adored movie The Big Lebowsky which came out just after Fargo was largely a flop in the Cinema and critics panned it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Great observations! I was just telling my brother-in-law yesterday that the Coen Brothers age better and impress more after multiple viewings. Barton Fink is in my top 3 as well! Miller’s Crossing is so overlooked. Gosh, and then there’s No Country for Old Men, which continues to show me new details even after a fourth viewing. These two are a league of their own. Thanks for writing!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I saw Millers again just after viewing Barton. To me, Millers tries to be too smart regarding the plot and its awfully violent for violent sake at least how it came across to me on second viewing (maybe they were doing Scorses after Goodfellas??) Don’t get me wrong I think its better than 95% out there, but its not in my mid or top tier Coen.
        I agree No Country is so good and repeated viewings never disappoint. Also the editing in that movie is about the best I have seen.


    1. Ha! Full disclosure: I made some edits on my phone on a few posts, and I didn’t know how to “Update” a few of them without re-publishing them, so, no, no overly “bleak” time over here, haha! All is good. Rylan turns 7 months tomorrow (!!!), we took a wonderful road trip to Montana, and we have her first flight to NY to see my middle brother. You were right: As an older dad, Ry is a lot of work, and the body aches with fatigue, but the smiles and milestones are so worth it 🙂 How are you doing these days, Max? So nice to be communicating with you and under more “normal” circumstances with the country getting (somewhat) healthier…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well tell Rylan a happy 7 months! Sounds like you had a good time and that is great.

        We are doing good and it’s nice to get back to more of a normal routine. I’m happy we all made it through safe…for the ones who did. Hopefully it stays this way for a while.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. I’ve seen that before…there are so many that people don’t realize…like Pete Ham of Badfinger…many of them don’t get recognized.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. He was mentioned, but the excerpt was too short. Speaking of “bleak,” right? Well, to liven things up, I’m going to see Endless Summer this week! Can’t wait…

              Liked by 1 person

            2. I think you will enjoy it Bernie…I really do. Did you enjoy the movie draft? During that time…toward the end I was working like crazy…but I will say this…It’s harder to comment on movies than songs if you haven’t see them. With a song…just 3 minutes and comment.

              Liked by 1 person

            3. I freaking loved the movie draft! But, yes, the effort and length of time to get it done is tough sometimes, especially with a newborn in your lap. Lately, when I get the time to see a movie, I just enjoy it before I fall asleep. I hope to write more down the road, but I’ll never let this blog wither. Classic rock-wise, I got back into the early Rolling Stones. More genius than I realized.

              Liked by 1 person

            4. Yes…The Stones started with blues/rock and then pure pop and then to a country-blues-rock where they still are. They are still here for a reason….well Mick loves money lol.

              I’m glad you liked it and yes it was so hard for me to write about them….but I learned a lot from it. We might to a tv series one down the road… I know it was really tough for you.

              Liked by 1 person

  3. Fargo is without a doubt my favorite film of all time. And yes, you definitely did it justice! Part of the reason why I adore it so much is that it left such an impact on my style as well. Quirky characters, tales of criminal activity, meandering dialogue, and making no one the protagonist. Yeah, in all my works, not one of my characters could be considered a “good guy” . Everyone is at worst conniving and manipulating, while the best mean well but are remarkably flawed through and through. I also love visiting the lives of folks you would probably see in public and not really second guess about them, someone who’s just a passing figure, and watching how scummy people can be. It feels like I’m a documentary crew of something. I incorporate humor in my stuff too, mostly whimsical, deadpan, and dark.

    So yes, instead of focusing on life morals and the struggle and success of some action hero, I drop in on random people, put them in a crazy dilemma, and watch them come out of their shells and show how despicable people really can be. Sorry for the long comment! Ah, geez. Thanks for following the Lighttrain, and yah you betcha I’ll follow you back as well. Stay stellar

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Such a spot-on analysis: “good guy” is very ambiguous here, and there’s an evil even under the innocent surface (Mike Yanagita, stay on your side of the booth!). Uncomfortably funny and icky at the same time. It’s a rare gem in film, and it still hold up! Thank you for reading. Looking forward to reading more of your insights!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Perfect. As with most of their work, this is a masterful film by the Coens and their team. In addition, the Fargo three season TV series, of which the Coens are executive producers, manages to capture the same themes, moods, and the bleak hope and despair as the movie does.

    Liked by 2 people

            1. Well, you’ve got me interested! My best friend mentioned liking it. Like many shows, I just didn’t get around to it, but since Fargo is on my mind, I probably should. Thanks again and stay healthy and safe out there!

              Liked by 1 person

            2. It goes above and beyond the notion of happenstance, “these things happen,” Magnolia-like, unexpected qualities. Yes, Thewlis is the most minuscule yet dangerously threatening villain I’ve ever seen. McGregor is incredible in both roles, and I feel like there is is more focus on character development in this season. The other two were great, but this one has me cherishing each moment because I don’t want it to end. Thanks again for this rec. It has made quarantine bearable, haha!

              Liked by 1 person

  5. I remember this movie. I love realism but this one had realism that was half way depressing. I loved it though and yes it was funny. I need to revisit it…it’s been a while.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I think my multiple viewings have made it softer and lighter. These are still some real sicko bad guys, and things get awfully messed up, but maybe I’ve been a bit desensitized with all my movie watching. I don’t regret it one bit, but, yeah, it takes a lot to shock me these days. And, actually, because of my wonderful Disney loving wife, I’ve enjoyed happier, family oriented flicks lately. (She’s got me hooked on Hallmark Channel during Christmas!) Occasionally, when we need a break from remote teaching, I pop in a movie she’d hate just to balance things out 🙂 How’s Bailey doing?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t mind dark…I love dark but this one is so real…I can’t explain it. I need to rewatch it.
        If I want happy I watch a Capra movie…I love those.
        Jennifer likes those Hallmark movies also. She gets upset when I tell her what is going to happen lol.
        Bailey is doing fine…taking his classes online so far…he is getting stir crazy but…join the crowd!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Such an original movie, with the cop only turning up second half; amazing to be so confident in the material that film-makers can take that kind of risk. And even if the Coen’s have a difficut time with comedy elsewhere, the humor in this film is awesome. Great review!

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Way to go, Bern! I watch Fargo once a year. Every year. I own Carter Burwell’s soundtrack on CD. I imitate Jerry’s lines, “ No, Wade, they, they were adamant about it… they only deal with ME.” Darn tootin’!
    This is one of my top 10 movies of all time! Best acting job for all three: McDormand, Beschemi, Macy. And, when I watch it each year, I don’t stream it… I put the VHS cassette in and hit PLAY!
    Love you, MAN! y o d

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The VHS is the way to go! I’ve got the CD soundtrack too! Those seven drum beats before the strings come in! Wow! Also, I guess Carter Burwell did a ton of research on the style of music they play up north, and he used a hardanger fiddle as the main instrument. Love you! “I’m cooperating – darn tootin!”


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