Marge Gunderson smiles in Fargo

“And for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know.”

Picture in your head a plot where a man hires two criminals to kidnap his wife so he can keep most of the ransom money paid by her father. There’s murder and a big investigation. Unless you’ve seen Fargo, I highly doubt the picture in your mind is set in small-town Minnesota. Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen (True Grit, The Big Lebowski) and starring Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare, Fargo turns the normal police-investigating-a-string-of-murders plot on its head by focusing on simple, conservative small-town folks and largely incompetent, unsympathetic characters. These aren’t people in the dark underbelly of some large city, these are people who get excited when new stamp designs come out. Under the hood, this is a black comedy as well as a crime drama, and the writing is top-notch. If you’re looking for something different and clever without being over-the-top, this might be it.

The story opens with Jerry Lundegaard, a nervous car salesman, talking to two low-life criminals about kidnapping his wife. His wife’s parents are very rich, and he expects them to come up with the ransom, which he intends to split with the kidnappers. When the kidnapping wracks up some collateral in the form of a few murders, small-town police chief Marge Gunderson begins her investigation with the small-town residents. Nothing seems to go as planned for anybody involved and some cruel twists of fate lead us toward a final confrontation.

I guess you think you’re, you know, like an authority figure, with that stupid fuckin’ uniform, huh buddy? King clip-on tie there, big fuckin’ man, huh? You know, these are the limits of your life, man! The rule of your little fuckin’ gate here!

As with most Coen brothers films, there’s a lot going on under the surface of this one. The story here hearkens back to Existentialist stories of the early 20th century, where fate is a cruel mistress who plays no favorites. Best-laid plans often amount to nothing, and the absurdity of everyone’s scramble to climb to the top is made very clear. In fact, the only characters that are happy are the ones that fully embrace this absurdity and are contented with simple, meaningless pleasures, much like the absurdist hero Sisyphus who delighted in pushing a boulder up a hill everyday just to watch it roll down to the bottom again. They don’t come right out and say it, but this is a textbook example of Existentialism, and it’s in a much more relatable setting than most other examples.

Two seedy criminals are investigated by a police officer in Fargo
These criminals are neither smart nor glamorous.

The film itself is dark, almost brutal in its humor. Very rarely is it laugh-out-loud funny, but absurdity seems to be the defining trait of all other elements. There’s drama in there, but it’s intentionally a little removed from what most of us know, with the thick Minnesota accents and small town sensibilities, so even the drama comes off as a subtle joke most of the time. I’ll admit, I enjoyed watching this a lot more on my second time through. The first time, the dark, hopeless scenarios grated on me; the second time through, when I knew what to expect, I found far more humor than I did the first time through. There’s more than a hint of schadenfreude in this story and you have to be alright with laughing at others’ misfortune to really get all the humor in this. That’s a big reason why most of the characters here are not quite admirable or relatable: relating to these characters too much would evoke pity rather than laughter, and that’s definitely not what the Coen brothers were going for.

Fargo sits in an interesting spot. It’s a brilliant dark comedy that makes a statement on the absurdity of life, but that’s all buried under a facade of tragedy and failure. For all its brilliance, you have to dig a bit to get everything that this film has to offer. That said, the film itself was well-received by both critics and audiences (receiving a 93% from each group on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes), so things aren’t buried so deep that they’re unreachable. If a smart crime drama with darkly comedic elements sounds appealing to you, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than this.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 1:38
Director: Coen Brothers
Year: 1996
Genres: comedy, crime, drama, indie
Rating: PG

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