How many Paul Bunyan statues are there?
A staple of the work of American pulp fiction writers is the doomed character: your everyday everyman, thrown into a set of circumstances either by his own flawed machinations, or merely by the whim of cold fate. No matter which way our hero turns, no matter how fiercely he struggles, he only succeeds in making things worse for himself. Caught in the cruel web of the universe, there is no escape for this poor soul.
Just such a character is Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy, currently best known for his work in Paul Thomas Anderson movies, and who should star in a movie version of the old Fibber Magee & Molly radio show). Only Jerry wasn’t cooked up by any crime writer trying to make a buck by throwing some ink on paper. Fargo is based (very very very roughly) on an actual kidnapping case from the 1980s. True, the Coen Brothers only used the facts as a framework, filling in the spaces with their own characters and events. But that doesn’t mean that anything in the movie is too strange to happen.
Thickheaded Jerry is always scheming, but he never seems to think things all the way through. He starts with a bit of dishonesty, like any other car salesman, selling unnecessary add-ons that his customers don’t want, never thinking about what will happen when one of them notices. Later, when he needs some cash to invest in a real estate deal he’s come up with, he commits a bit of insurance fraud, borrowing money on cars that aren’t his own. Pushed to desperation, he comes up with a truly criminal plot.
Up to his ass in alligators, Jerry takes a tip from Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis, The Doors‘ mystical Native American), one of the dealership’s mechanics. He hires hoods Carl Showalter (the great Steve Buscemi of Con Air and Armageddon) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare of The Lost World and Armageddon) to kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrud of Pleasantville). Jerry’s plan is to grab most of the million-dollar ransom, to be paid by his rich father-in-law (sturdy Harve Presnell), who is also his boss.
The scheme goes awry immediately — while fleeing across the barren snow-covered Minnesota prairie, Grimsrud kills a suspicious state trooper and two witnesses. The crime happens to fall within the jurisdiction of 7-months pregnant small town police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who sets out to nab the perps in charming Columbo-like fashion. Marge may have a bit of trouble getting around, and she might get hungry every 40 minutes, but she doesn’t let that get in the way of following the evidence to the most reasonable suspects.
However, Showalter and Grimsrud already have bloody hands, and they have no qualms about spilling even more if it’ll get them the forty thousand dollars Jerry has promised them, not to mention a brand new tan Chrysler Sierra.
Like their old buddy Sam Raimi has done more recently in A Simple Plan, here the Coen Brothers restrain their usual playful camera antics and use their skills in more straightforward service of their characters and story. They succeed in delivering a wry stew of sudden shocks and subtle charm, showing how personality and human frailty can tell the tale as surely as any cold chain of events. They also delight in poking some gentle fun at the inhabitants of the North Star state (although they may have gone too far by including a subplot added solely to show an Asian with a ‘Nordern’ accent).
Fargo was a solid theatrical and critical success, which lead to a number of awards including Oscar nominations for cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption), best director, film editing, best supporting actor (Macy) and best picture. It won best actress for McDormand and best original screenplay. These were just a few of the dozens of awards and nominations the picture earned. It has since been a solid rental and sales title on video as well.
While lavishing a mountain of extras on their James Bond DVDs, MGM has chosen a streamlined approach to Fargo, as well as selling it at a lower price. Perhaps the Coens will get involved and put together an anniversary edition in a few years, but only a theatrical trailer and a couple of subtitle options grace this release. The transfer is spotless, with the fullscreen version available on one side and widescreen on the other. The widescreen ratio is much preferred, which is enhanced for 16×9 monitors.
NBC announced plans in 1997 for a proposed Fargo television series to star McDormand in continuing mysteries in the frozen north. Though I question whether a Mystery of the Week would water down the character, I’d love to see more adventures of Chief Margie. These plans seem to have fallen by the wayside since, but maybe someday…