We are in the wintry Midwest and even the spacing of the opening titles looks desolate. The swell of Carter Burwell’s score as a car makes it over a rise in a blizzard briefly invokes the western—later on certain transitional cues will echo Bernard Herrmann’s music for Taxi Driver (1976)—but Fargo (1995) is very much a ’90s crime film, a semi-rural neo-noir where violence and humiliation is played for laughs. Most crime films of the ’90s seemed pitched as black comedies, so it’s no wonder that the Coen Brothers cemented their prominence in that decade, collecting Academy Awards while prompting a critical backlash that’s never quite abated. It’s been noted ad nauseam that the Coens don’t display the appropriate amount of love for their characters, whatever that means, and indeed Fargo often seems in the grips of a cruel hand, its motley criminals mined for amusement while dangling on the hook that’ll ultimately flay them. But Fargo also has one of the most iconoclastic heroines in the movies. Like most of the film’s small town Minnesotans, Brainerd Police Chief Margie Olmstead-Gunderson (Frances McDormand, brilliant and totally at ease) speaks with sunny amiability and an accent or cadence, generously peppered with those “ya, ya”s that harken back to the region’s Swedish heritage, that begs to be taken for naïve if not moronic by urban sophisticates. But Margie, who doesn’t even enter the film until it’s a third over, proves herself a well of humble intelligence and know-how. She is a chipper, very pregnant, female Colombo, and near-impossible not to love.
The rest of Fargo’s personage are easy to loathe and, in keeping with noir fatalism, speak to some fundamental, inescapable corruption at the core of everything. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy, a vivid, nuanced cartoon), a car salesman drowning in financial ruin of his own doing, arranges the kidnapping of his own wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd), by far the film’s crudest character, played mostly as hysterical but whose terror I find too awful to giggle at. Even Jerry’s adolescent son understands how things can go horribly wrong—maybe he’s been watching Coen Brothers films? Jerry hears about a pair of crooks named Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi, groomed as John Waters if John Waters bought his clothes at flea markets) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare, convincingly disaffected) from Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis, in a steely, explosive cameo), a Native American mechanic with a fraught past. Carl is a babbling sociopath, while Gaear barely speaks, perhaps because he spends all of his time holding vigil for the first opportunity to kill an innocent bystander. What kind of idiot would trust these two with his wife?
Greed and stupidity constitute the twin engines of Fargo, which is ostensibly based on a true story, though some of its narrative masterstrokes—i.e.: the emergence of a man named Mike Yanagita, or an extensive conversation between two parkas—must surely the product of the skewed imaginations of the authors, Minnesotans both. Theirs is a cold and nasty world—no country for old men or pregnant women—in which people like Margie seem the minority. That final scene: Margie, who’s just seen a man shoved into a wood chipper with a 2x4, who’s two months away from giving birth, snuggles with Norm (John Carroll Lynch, endearingly sedated), whose painting has just been selected for a measly three-cent stamp, and warmly urges him to look on the bright side of things. It’s not exactly a happy ending, but in the Coens’ filmography it’s about as happy as things usually get.