Fargo (1996) is a self-proclaimed "homespun murder story" set in the white-washed, winter wilderness of the frozen and bleak Upper Midwest. An anomaly of categorization, the contemporary masterpiece is a film noir (with stark white vistas and backdrops), a satirical comedy, a suspenseful crime drama, and a violent mystery thriller. The Coen Brothers' film is an original mix of black mirth and murder that both delights and disturbs the viewer. The dark comedy's local color is provided by the flat-accented, dead-pan voices, regional dialect, and exaggerated, down-home mannerisms of the Midwestern characters and oft-repeated phrases such as "You betcha," "Aw Jeez," "You're darn tootin', "Okie-Dokie," "Yup," "Be there in a jif," and "Yah." And a number of incongruous dialogue sequences and extraneous minor characters appear without any real reason except to provide a fascinating journey along the way.
The off-beat, absurdist morality tale from the creative and original producing/writing/directing collaborative team of Joel and Ethan Coen is unlike many of their previous films, with a straight-forward, realistic narrative devoid of their typically quirky and bizarre sequences. It is more a return to their hometown roots and a remake of their debut film, Blood Simple (1983) - set in the hot extremes of Texas, a tale of another husband who hires a hit man to murder his wife.
A kidnapping gone awry, a triple homicide (a highway patrolman and two innocent passersby), two contrasting families (the male-dominated Lundegaards and the female-dominated Gundersons), the corruptible effects of fast food, TV watching and pecuniary greed, and a hapless extortion scheme make up the film's story, but the major strong point is the realistic performances of the two leads:
- William H. Macy is superb as the desperate, wretched and incompetent car salesman and hapless husband, who is pathetically in debt, and sets the uncontrollable chain of events into motion with an ill-fated plan to have his wife kidnapped and ransomed by extorting his wealthy father-in-law
- Frances McDormand, appearing a third of the way into the film, perfectly portrays the astute, level-headed, warm-hearted (even in the frozen clime), persevering, smarter-than-she-appears pregnant local Chief of Police (supplemented with her loving relationship with her husband)
Its critical and box-office success also came with seven Academy Awards nominations, including Best Supporting Actor (William H. Macy), Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins, The Shawshank Redemption), Best Director (Joel Coen), Best Film Editing (alias Roderick Jaynes, actually the Coens), and Best Picture (Ethan Coen). The film's two well-deserved Oscars were for Best Original Screenplay (Joel and Ethan Coen), and Best Actress (Frances McDormand, Joel Coen's real-life wife). A brilliant pilot for a dark comedy TV series based on Fargo was made in 1997, starring Edie Falco as Marge Gunderson, but never publicly aired until late 2003 -- the plans for the proposed spin-off series were subsequently dropped.
During the opening credits, a disclaimer states that Fargo's story is a "true story" based on an actual kidnapping and murder case - although the white-on-black inter-title's claim is questionable and has been disputed. [The end credits state: "The persons and events portrayed in this production are fictitious."] However, the tongue-in-cheek claim of authenticity lends an air of credibility to the ghoulish account.
THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.
Although the film is named Fargo, the location of the initial scene in North Dakota, most of the film's action is set in Minnesota (the towns of Brainerd and Minneapolis) and on the road to and from Fargo, during approximately a week of time in late January and early February. None of the film was shot in the city of Fargo.
(Day One - Late Afternoon, Sunday)
The film opens with a memorable white-out, blinding blizzard in the 'dead' of winter, causing the screen to be drenched in the white of the vast, snow-covered landscape without recognizable landmarks. At first, a black bird flies circles in the sky overhead. An outline of a car - with its headlights on - emerges almost imperceptibly, filmed with tremendous depth of field, as it plows through the swirling snow toward the camera. (The score by Carter Burwell prophetically pounds out the dark, solemn theme music behind the stark scene.) When it comes closer, it reveals itself as a four-door sedan with Minnesota plates, towing (dragging with a hitch) a brand-new, light-brown (burnt umber) Cutlass Ciera on its front wheels to the semi-frozen wasteland of the country.
Fargo, North Dakota
(Day One - Sunday Evening)
The disheveled driver, named Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), who wears a light-beige parka (with hood), gloves, and dumpy Elmer-Fudd hat, enters the King of Clubs bar where country-music plays on a jukebox and patrons play pool over beers. He has an appointment in the bar with two men who have been waiting for an hour at a booth - they have already drunk six beers (the table is littered with six long-neck bottles). The two low-life losers (and soon-to-be hired killers) are:
- Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) - a weasely-looking, nervous and sweaty, demented, raw-nerved, volatile and loud, and embittered slimeball of a man with a shaggy mustache
- Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) - a Swedish-accented, grim, stone-faced, sullen, and usually reserved hulk of few words who explodes in episodes of violent psychosis
Lundegaard's go-between, Shep Proudfoot, had arranged for a rendezvous at 7:30pm, but Jerry admits to a "mix-up" and is already one hour late. The deal is to exchange the Cutlass Ciera and cash ("the new vehicle plus forty thousand dollars") for a job that Jerry has planned, although Carl says: "What Shep told us didn't make a whole lot of sense." Block-headed Jerry is confident that the arranged plan ("mission") to kidnap his own wife makes sense: "It's real sound. It's all worked out." The ransom demand will be for $80,000, to be split 50% between the kidnappers and Jerry after the ransom is paid (and the wife is safely returned without bloodshed).
His plan is to swindle and extort the funds out of his wealthy, businessman father-in-law ("her dad, he's real well off"), because the overwrought Jerry is purportedly in financial trouble and needs cash fast, but he doesn't articulate or elaborate why. In reality, his problems are "personal matters" - as an inadequate breadwinner in his family, he expresses his rebellion and rage against his father-in-law by his ill-conceived plan to steal from him:
I just need the money...They don't know I need it, see. OK, so there's that. And even if they did, I wouldn't get it. So there's that on top, then. See, these are personal matters.
The scene fades to black.
(Day Two - Monday Evening)
The pitiful husband Jerry returns to his middle-class Minnesota home with a large bag of groceries in his arms. His shrill-voiced wife Jean (Kristin Rudrud) is chopping celery in the kitchen in preparation for dinner. His balding, 60-ish father-in-law Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) is in the living room watching professional hockey on TV [the first of many characters in the film who find escapist entertainment on the tube], while waiting for dinner (a common occurrence). At the dining room table, they are joined by 12 year-old son Scotty (Tony Denman), who excuses himself from the boring, unfulfilling family to go to McDonalds to see his friends. Passive-aggressive in personality and financially impotent in his own family, Jerry is obviously bullied, dominated by, and indebted to his wealthy father-in-law. He tentatively brings up a business deal that they have talked about - "those 40 acres there on Wayzata" - where Jerry plans to purchase the property (with a loan to help finance the $750,000 price) for a parking lot. He tries to close the deal, but the tight-fisted Wade condescendingly and belligerently guarantees him nothing:
Jerry: This could work out real good for me and Jean and Scotty.
Wade: Jean and Scotty'll never have to worry. [Jerry is excluded from Wade's beneficence for his daughter and grand-son.]
(Day Three - Tuesday Morning)
Scenes in Minneapolis are cross-cut with the journey of Grimsrud and Carl from Fargo to Minneapolis to carry out Jerry's kidnap and ransom plan. The brown Cutlass Ciera drives along a two-lane highway, surrounded by a wide expanse of flat white fields. Although they've already stopped for pancakes for breakfast, Grimsrud is still famished. Carl decides to "stop outside of Brainerd" where they can "get pancakes" and "get laid."
(Day Three - Tuesday Afternoon)
The next scene is in Gustafson's Motors showroom (the Oldsmobile auto chain is owned by his father-in-law), where lowly, sad-faced, and sleazy Minnesota executive car sales manager Jerry browbeats and scams a customer (Gary Houston) and his wife (Sally Wingert) in his glass-enclosed cubicle (decorated with golf statues) to purchase TruCoat, and threatens that they will experience "oxidation problems" if they don't pay the extra $500 for the factory-installed finish. [Jerry presides over the customer in a role that he normally assumes - a powerless, overcharged victim.] The irate husband accuses Jerry of "talking in circles," vows a deliberate misunderstanding and overcharge, and claims that Jerry promised delivery on "a deal here for nineteen-five...WITHOUT THE SEALANT." An inept con, the reprehensible Lundegaard attempts to squirm out of a lie involving the extra rust-proofing fee, by enduring the angry outburst and then slinking off to pass along the deception to his boss ("I'll talk to my boss"), but it's only a ploy to leave his office for a few minutes and try to get free tickets for a Gophers game from a sales colleague (Kurt Schweickhardt). When he returns, Jerry sheepishly offers them "a hundred dollars off that TruCoat" because of the "special circumstances" involved - the exasperated couple give up after accusing him, rightly so, of being "a bald-faced liar."
The next scene is introduced by an imposing, commemorative statue of the area's famous legend next to the two-lane highway. The huge, hulking, majestic statue outside of town is of bearded, unsmiling lumberjack Paul Bunyan (a caricatured portrayal, wearing a red plaid shirt, blue jeans and boots), with an axe slung over his left shoulder, and standing on a pedestal with an inviting placard:
WELCOME TO BRAINERD -
HOME OF PAUL BUNYAN
(Day Three - Tuesday Evening)
The kidnappers' car approaches the landmark statue from behind. The two thugs stop for the night at the Blue Ox Truck Stop and Hotel (Babe, Bunyan's blue ox, adorns the building). In their room with double beds, they are engaged in vigorous humping with two hired prostitutes who are making the customary moans. After a quick cut following the sex, they are sitting up in bed in their icy blue-tinged room. They are catatonic - watching the Tonight Show (from Hollywood) on TV, like the rest of those living a bland existence in Middle America.
(Day Four - Wednesday Morning)
In the Lundegaard home, while a bored Scotty watches a morning TV show and scoops down breakfast cereal, Jean (now stirring something in a bowl) lectures her son about his lack of potential and scholastic achievement: "You're not a C student...and yet you're gettin' C grades." [His difficulties in school reflect the marital tensions between his parents at home.] She threatens that he won't be allowed to try out for the school's hockey team. A phone call from Wade to Jerry informs him that his accountant Stan Grossman looked at the scheme to buy the lot and "says it's pretty sweet." They plan to meet at 2:30 pm to discuss the purchase further.
Jerry strides into the service area of Gustafson Motors to speak to his Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis), his go-between with one of the thugs ("I vouch for Grimsrud, who's his buddy"). Proudfoot is a Native-American, wearing a maintenance jumpsuit with a job as a mechanic while on parole - it's later learned. Now that the deal to purchase the property may provide the needed cash, Jerry is anxious to call off his hired thugs for the unnecessary kidnapping, but mindlessly, he realizes that he has no way to contact them and abort the scheme:
Jerry: I gotta get in touch with 'em. See, this deal I needed 'em for. I may not need it anymore, sump-thin's happenin', see.
Shep: Call 'em up.
Jerry: Yah, well, see, I did that, and I haven't been able to get 'em, so I thought you maybe'd know an alternate number or what have you.
The schizoid mercenaries are now on the outskirts of the big metropolis of Minneapolis on an interstate, approaching closer to the Lundegaard home. Their brief, nearly one-sided conversation expresses their volatility, their small-mindedness, their opposite natures (one eerily silent, the other hyper-talkative) and their quick-to-anger potential:
Carl: Hey, look at that. Twin Cities. That's the IDS Building, the big glass one. Tallest skyscraper in the Midwest - after the uh, Sears, in, uh, Chicago, or John Hancock Building, whatever. You ever been to Minneapolis?
Carl: Would it kill you to say something?
Grimsrud: I did.
Carl: 'No.' That's the first thing you've said in the last four hours. That's a, that's a fountain of conversation, man. That's a geyser. I mean, whoa, daddy, stand back, man. Shit, I'm sittin' here drivin', doin' all the drivin', man, the whole f--kin' way from Brainerd, drivin', just tryin' to chat, you know, keep our spirits up, fight the boredom of the road, and you can't say one f--king thing just in the way of conversation? (Grimsrud fails to respond and looks straight ahead.) Well, f--k it. I don't have to talk either, man. See how you like it. (Pause) Just total f--kin' silence. Two can play at that game, smart guy. We'll just see how you like it. Total silence.
In his office (with vertical blinds imprisoning him in his 'cell' and web of lies), Jerry receives a phone call from a Reilly Diefenbach, a representative from GMAC (General Motors) who is inquiring about the illegible serial numbers on the vehicles (worth $320,000) that he has submitted in financing documents ("I gotta correlate that money with the cars it's being lent on"). Thinking fast but already in a cold sweat, Jerry suggests faxing - no, sending - over a copy to verify that the vehicles actually exist.