Fargo: More Than Just a Small-town Crime Caper

Fargo is a good one, you betcha!

The telephone rings at 3am, and a pregnant woman puts on her police uniform to go out into the Minnesota winter. “Eggs,” her sleepy husband says. He wants to make her eggs. We see them eating at a small table in the kitchen. He stays as she goes outside. Quickly she returns, his head tilting as he hears her. “Hun,” she says, “prowler needs a jump.”

This is the scene where Fargo (1996) shows how it is going to take a story about pathetic criminals and make it into one of the Coen brothers’ finest films. Our first shot of Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) comes deep into the film; the crimes are already in place.

We know Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), the car dealer with a ridiculous plan to have his wife kidnapped so he can steal the ransom. We know the mousy, nervous, sweaty Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and his unnerving partner (Peter Stormare), a sullen slug of few words. These two have agreed to kidnap Jerry’s wife for $40,000, plus a new car Jerry is going to steal from his own lot. These are quirky, skewed, irreplaceable characters, but when things go wrong and Marge and her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), are introduced, Fargo finds its own.

Marge Gunderson is one of a handful of characters whose names remain in our memories, like Tyler Durden, Jack Torrance, Travis Bickle (and perhaps Mildred Hayes in another 22 years). They are completely, unapologetically themselves in movies that depend on precisely who they are. Marge is chief of police in Brainerd, Minnesota, has bouts of morning sickness, eats junk food nonstop, speaks in a “you betcha” Minnesota accent where “yeah,” pronounced “ya,” is volleyed between characters. Read any of Marge’s quotes, and you can hear her say it, no matter how long it has been since your last viewing.

She’s a natural detective, very intuitive; at the crime scene she quickly and correctly reconstructs exactly what the audience witnessed not ten minutes earlier. Her partner, not so swift, makes a silly mistake in his analysis; this inspires one of the movie’s famous lines: “I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there, Lou.”

Fargo was directed by Joel Coen, produced by Ethan Coen, co-written by the two, and set in the Scandinavian-American upper Midwest where they grew up. It begins with the information that it is “based on a true story,” and ends with a disclaimer that its “persons and events” are fictitious. It is fiction; “true story” is simply a stylistic device.

But Fargo remains true to the rhythms of small-town life. Venturing to the big city on her investigation, Marge asks a friend for a tip on a good place to eat, and is directed to the buffet at the Radisson Hotel. Jerry Lundegaard is as trapped by his auto sales job and his unpleasable father-in-law; he’s juggling a stolen car and a double fraud. His son bolts away from the dinner table to meet friends at McDonald’s. His wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrud), works furiously at every household task, chopping, stirring and knitting as fast as she can.

Against these domestic details, the crimes stand out as amoral and vicious. There are ugly moments. Everyone knows the wood-chipper scene. The kidnappers heartlessly laugh at the afflicted. The shootings are sudden and merciless. Antithetically, Marge uses her folksy, midwest cheerfulness as a tool for prying criminals loose from their secrets.

William H. Macy’s performance as Jerry Lundegaard is an implosion of fear and frustration. This is a man who wants a simple thing: a $750,000 loan from his very wealthy father-in-law, so he can invest in some property and start to make good money for himself. His office blinds are draped vertically, like prison bars; he feels trapped selling cars. If he can pull of his heist, he can buy the land. True, his wife will have to be kidnapped, but he can live with that. He is desperate.

He finds the kidnappers at third hand. He knows nothing about them. As his poorly thought-out plans crumble, there’s Marge, sitting across his desk, chipper, asking him questions he cannot answer. Macy sweats, his smile a grimace, his self-control like a death grip, and things pile up, and up, and up.

The dark, the cold, and the heavy snow weigh down everything, but in the middle, in their warm, familial cocoon, are Chief Marge Gunderson and her loving husband Norm, the duck painter. Without them, Fargo is simply an unsettling crime movie. The Coens’ love for Marge redeems Fargo. She is the catalyst, and her speech at the end is poetic in the way it restores order and heals scars: “There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that? And here you are. And it’s a beautiful day.”

Join us for a special 4K screening of Fargo on Wednesday, February 21 at 7:15pm.