At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Fargo “96”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Black Comedy Crime/ Stars: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Harve Presnell, Kristin Rudrüd, Tony Denman, Steve Reevis, Larry Brandenburg, John Carroll Lynch, Steve Park, Bruce Bohne, Larissa Kokernot, David S. Lomax, Melissa Peterman, Michelle Suzanne LeDoux, Bain Boehlke, Warren Keith, James Gaulke, José Feliciano, Cliff Rakerd, Gary Houston, Steve Edelman, Sally Wingert, Bruce Campbell/ Runtime: 97 minutes

In the aftermath of their 1994 slice of cinema known as The Hudsucker Proxy not exactly matching the caliber of their prior films from either a critical or financial point of view (though time has been kind to it and I have always seen it as a flawed yet still pretty darn good film), that iconic filmmaking duo known as the Coen Brothers decided that perhaps their next movie should be a return to the basics that worked out for them so wonderfully with their debut film Blood Simple in 1984. In other words: gone was a budget over 10 million dollars, gone was working with such screen icons like Paul Newman and instead more with a cast of terrific character actors, and back was working in the crime genre. The result of their efforts was a 7 million dollar slice of cinema known as Fargo and yes I suppose if you choose to look at it from a certain perspective it could be said that this film is Blood Simple with a lot more dark comedy and infinitely more snow at its disposal. However whereas Blood Simple was a relatively simple story to follow for all intents and purposes that is not the case with Fargo. Indeed Fargo is a wonderfully complex saga about crime, comeuppance, and the cowardly machinations of a car salesman all occurring in the snow-blanketed state of Minnesota. More than that though, this is also a phenomenally acted, helmed, and penned slice of cinema that has the nuances and dark comedy that have become trademarks for this dynamic duo since the beginning and which help to make this slice of cinema into one that is not only a true must-see, but one of the best film that the 90s sought fit to give us.

The plot is as follows: Fargo opens its riveting yarn as we see that a car mechanic by the name of Shep Proudfoot has managed to set up for a very much on pins and needles-level of anxiety boss of his, a car sales manager by the name of Jerry Lundegaard, an opportunity to meet with a pair of highly unethical individuals consisting of a mile a minute chatterbox named Carl Showalter and a highly solemn-faced and enigmatic man named Gaear Grimsrud in (where else?) Fargo in North Dakota and propose to them an especially ruthless scheme. That of course being that Jerry would like the pair to snatch his wife and then hold her for no less than an 80,000 dollar ransom. A ransom that half of will go to the 2 goons and the other will go to Jerry. On top of that, the ransom must be paid by his wife’s very well-off doting dad Wade who honestly wants as little to do with his let-down and highly incompetent son-in-law as he possibly can. However when Wade surprisingly actually shows more interest than Jerry thought he would in a land deal Jerry had brought to him just prior to the start of the story, we see Jerry begin to have second thoughts about the scheme he has put into motion. Unfortunately he is not able to get through to the scheming dynamic duo before they are able to carry out the nefarious plot. However things soon go from bad to worse when Gaear with no warning shoots a state trooper and two other people in the nearby small town of Brainerd, Minnesota and the local police chief, one Marge Gunderson, who is fairly along with a child, is brought in to try and figure out what the heck happened. Yet despite regular eating breaks and just as fairly regular bouts of morning sickness, we see Marge slowly but surely start to put the various pieces to the puzzle together. Now as we see what was supposed to be a simple kidnapping and extortion scheme spin wildly out of control and the knowledge of Jerry’s covert participation in the whole deal get closer and closer to the light, we witness as Jerry attempts to stay one step ahead of the law and Marge attempt to find and apprehend those responsible before things get even more troublesome than they already are…..

Now once you are able to make it past the fact that this slice of cinema tries to claim at its start that it is “based on a true story” it should be noted that not only is this slice of cinema one of the more rewatchable entries in the Coens’ filmography, but it is also (like all the others) very well-done behind the camera as well. Indeed this slice of cinema is one that gets underway with an opening that is a brilliant mix of both wintery and desolate which then comes equipped with a wonderful and seemingly epic musical accompaniment that not only proves to be a terrific intro to this astonishing true crime saga that can best be described as a slightly lighter take on something like the riveting and arresting (pun intended) true crime saga In Cold Blood from 1967. Rather, it also does a wonderful job of setting the table and mood for this slice of cinema to feel a lot more larger than life than it turns out to be. Along with that, we see that not only is this slice of cinema’s narrative insidiously clever with a wonderful undercurrent of dark comedy running throughout, but that the film makes an ingenious choice to place the truly ghastly events which occur in this film in a part of the country where the people aren’t really that hostile to one another (unless they are on the roads). Rather, they’re usually quite upbeat and cheerful thus giving this slice of cinema a rather unique perspective on the typical true crime narrative. It’s also worth pointing out that this slice of cinema’s script is one that is a true winner in every sense of the word. Indeed not only is it one that is wonderfully witty to go along with the dark humor, but it also does a great job at fleshing out the film’s intriguing cast of characters and making it easier (even if sympathetic doesn’t always fit into that description) to understand who these people are as well as where they are coming from in regards to their motivations for the actions that they choose to partake in throughout the course of this slice of cinema’s 98 minute runtime.

Of course, a slice of cinema can be a masterpiece through the work that is being done behind the camera, but if the performances in front of the camera don’t match up to that caliber of excellence then the slice of cinema overall will sadly suffer as a result. Thankfully, I can safely say that with this slice of cinema that is most assuredly not a dilemma by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed every single role in this slice of cinema is one that is being portrayed by an actor who gives a top-flight performance in every sense of the word. This, of course, starts with screen icon Frances McDormand in the role of heroine/main character Marge Gunderson and yet astonishingly she doesn’t come into this slice of cinema until at least half an hour in. Yet from that moment on, McDormand proves to be a phenomenal lead actress. Indeed her character may have quite the thick Midwestern accent and she may be doing all this whilst pregnant, but McDormand makes Marge a skilled, talented, and quite capable (both in terms of deductive logic to say nothing of firearm usage) cop yet also an incredibly decent and optimistic person who tries to give everyone the same radiant smile and degree of warmth and respect. Sure there are moments where we see Marge isn’t always on point when figuring out if a person is lying to her or not, but at the end of the day Marge is still a terrific character and the performance by McDormand is easily a career highlight in one that has seen more than its fair share of iconic parts (her part in Transformers: Dark of the Moon most definitely notwithstanding). Yet equally as phenomenal as the work done by McDormand in this slice of cinema is the work done by William H. Macy in the role of Jerry Lundegaard. Indeed Macy does a winning job at giving us a man who is equal parts scheming, miserable, stuttering, and more often than not looking like he is just being beaten down by everything around him especially his wife’s father who has no qualms about showing his disapproval for his son-in-law and how he does things. Yet even when he comes up with a scheme that is supposed to be making things slightly easier for him, we see that as the plan goes awry so too does Jerry devolve to the point that he is pretty much a consistent mix of pins and needles, guilt for both what he’s done and what his actions have resulted in, and the overwhelming feeling that the walls really are beginning to fall all around him. Intriguingly though, no matter how bad the things that Jerry does or takes part in are and no matter how much of a scheming leech he may be, credit must go to both the Coens as well as Macy for making it possible for us to actually still care about and even feel sorry for this guy to an extent. Suffice it to say that I have always enjoyed Macy’s work and felt he has always been a wonderful character actor who always makes every project he appears in just a tad bit more enjoyable, but this is easily a career highlight and for good reason. I also think this is the best spot to mention the wonderfully spot-on work done by both Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare as Carl and Grauer respectively. Yes they might be one of the weirdest odd couple-type criminal duos that you will see in a film like this, but what makes Buscemi and Stormare work so wonderfully together is exactly because of how unalike that they are. Indeed not only is Carl the kind of man who if he ever shut up would probably die of loneliness and Grauer the kind of man who revels in either complete silence or saying as little as possible, but Carl is easily the much more lecherous and duplicitous of the pair whereas Grauer is just an ice-cold killer who has no qualms about who he kills just so long as he gets paid at the end of it and he can walk away a free man. Yet even when you factor in the equation several other fine efforts including John Carroll Lynch as Marge’s equally as kind and decent husband Norm and Harve Presnell as Jerry’s gruff and no patience for bull hockey wealthy father-in-law Wade amongst several others we see that once again there may be a few minor issues with this slice of cinema overall, but the cast is most assuredly not one of them as everyone involved manages to bring their very best and then some to the finished film.

All in all eccentric, silly, visceral, and tense. This is a collection of adjectives that I feel not only brilliantly describe Joel and Ethan Cohen’s filmography, but also this slice of cinema in particular perfectly. Indeed this is one slice of cinema that proves to be a truly zany, delightfully odd, and top-flight mix of dark comedy and thrills that manages to take us to a seemingly distant world populated by seemingly eternally upbeat and well-mannered folks who when not trying to have each other kidnapped or killed might actually be trying to give this world a tad bit more in the way of positivity. A land incidentally known as “Minnesota” and yes I know geography class may try to tell you this is one of the 50 states that make up the United States, but after this slice of cinema I am starting to become convinced that it might just be a world completely onto itself. A feat that is not only attributable to the wonderful work done by the cast and the rest of the crew, but to the Coens themselves who manage to amplify this region in the United States’ distinct style and ethnographic background on just the right level that we see a crime story that could easily have been run of the mill in the worst way is quickly elevated courtesy of some wonderful dark comedy and a surprising degree of homemade charm and whimsy. Suffice it to say that even though to many this slice of cinema might not be as potent as it was when it first came out this is still one that, in my opinion, is still an extremely well done slice of cinema that proves to be a brilliant glimpse into the minds of the creative geniuses who made it possible and is above all a wonderful reminder now and always for what truly excellent cinema, to say nothing of genuine movie magic, can look like. On a scale of 1-5 I give Fargo “96” a solid 4.5 out of 5.