Review: Fargo (1996)

Directors/Screenwriters: Ethan and Joel Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, John Carroll Lynch
Genres: Comedy, Drama
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence, language, and sexuality
Release Dates: 4/5/96 (Theatres); 8/27/15 (Streaming)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%
Oscars: Won–Leading Actress (McDormand), Original Screenplay; Nominated–Picture, Supporting Actor (Macy), Director, Cinematography, Editing
Where to Watch: Netflix
Runtime: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Fargo is, in a way, a difficult film to review because it’s so bizarrely unique and sometimes difficult to watch that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to watch it again. That’s not to say that I didn’t find the movie entertaining and funny, but it is also uncomfortable and jarring at times — what we have come to know as a typical Coen brothers film. 

You’ll never find another movie like Fargo, even in the Coen’ own oeuvre; its originality is unparalleled, as is its ability to gravitate between different genres and tonal themes.  Not every film that attempts this succeeds, and sometimes it’s best for movies to stick to one genre or the other. And, while this movie is more darkly humorous than anything else, it straddles other genres (thriller, mystic, drama) very well. 

I primarily watched the film for Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning performance, which is so iconic that people (sometimes those who haven’t even seen it) will quote her heavily-accented lines. What’s interesting is that, while she doesn’t show up until 1/3 of the way through the film, once she’s on the screen it becomes clear that she is the narrative’s main character and the one for whom we should be rooting. It’s hard to describe the character or McDormand’s performance, other than to say  that it is wholly iconic and in a class all its own. And, it isn’t just her commitment to the North Dakotan accent, but sometimes just the way she carries herself in the fascinating role as a pregnant police chief. 

Also with considerable screen time, and as a semi-villain in the movie, is William H. Macy, in his sole Oscar-nominated performance — he was mistakenly nominated in the supporting category, whereas he has much more screen time and a central role in the narrative that makes this an egregious example of category fraud. Not only his accent on point, but he is fully believable in the role as a car salesman who has his wife kidnapped (for money); it’s one of his most interesting roles, to be sure. 

Then, let’s not forget the hilariously mismatched duo of Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare as the criminals tasked with the kidnapping. The two characters are so glaringly different from each other that their scenes are among the best in the film. Buscemi’s high-strung criminal is a total foil to Stormare’s nearly-silent, blonde one. There’s one particularly gruesome scene between the two of them at the end that is, surprisingly and supposedly, the only part of the story that is really based on a true story. (There’s a claim at the beginning that the whole thing is truth-based, but the Coen did that as a joke, just to mess with people). 

There are some scenes in the film that may, at first glance, appear to serve no purpose, but they do. Everything the characters say and do is integral to the plot, whether it’s noticeable at the get-go or not. Perhaps I will endeavor to watch this one again, if only to see all the pieces come together.