This week we’ll be blessed with the Coen Brothers’ 17th feature film. There’s not a single miss among their filmography (okay maybe Ladykillers, but even that has its moments), so Dork Shelf’s film writers are taking this opportunity to talk about a couple of the dynamic duo’s films that are closest to our hearts, starting with this 1996 classic.
Over the past few years Fargo has inspired two seasons of a TV series and a movie (Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter) and along the way has been enshrined as a cinematic classic. As a result, it’s easy to forget what a strange, dark, and weird little movie it actually is. The film was produced at a crossroads of sorts in the Coen Brothers’ careers. After having endeared themselves to the indie world, they had a crack at a Hollywood blockbuster comedy (The Hudsucker Proxy), which bombed. Rather than attempt to play it safe and sneak back into the mainstream, they delivered possibly their most eccentric movie yet. One that friends pleaded with them not to make because they feared it would reduce the Coen Brothers’ audience down to their social circle. The movie went on to become their biggest hit at that point and picked up a few Oscars. Go figure.
Fargo is another one of Joel and Ethan’s dabblings in crime movie subgenres, this time in the true crime genre (complete with a controversial faux “based on a true story” title card). It’s also the Coens’ first truly personal effort, dipping into their childhood spent on the depressing snow covered landscape of Minnesota, only bathed in blood. It’s another kidnapping story from the sibling filmmakers, but a painfully mundane and suburban one. It’s got a slight air of Treasure Of The Sierra Madre-style perilous human greed allegory, but without much moralizing. It’s often as nihilistic as their darkest crime dramas, yet thanks to the intoxicatingly kind hearted presence of Marge “Son Of A” Gunderson, it’s also their warmest movie. It’s set in a land of strip malls and broken dreams, yet is shot by Roger Deakins as an epic. It’s frequently listed on “great comedy” lists and is immensely quotable (“Aw geez,” etc.), yet is too cold and violent for many viewers.
Amidst all those contradictions emerges a movie that feels unlike anything else, even within the Coens’ distinct filmography. Filled with extraordinary career-defining performances from the likes of Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare, Fargo is as soul-crushingly naturalistic as it is hilariously arch and unrelentingly bleak. Working with “reality” as another cinematic style to be tweaked into Coenville, Joel and Ethan take a twisted story fit for a local newspaper expose and transform it into a heightened cinematic experience. Fargo feels like a turning point for the filmmakers, mixing the self-conscious movie brat sensibility that defined the first decade of their careers with the exertions into the crushing character comedy that has popped up lately in their recent mundane masterpieces A Serious Man and Inside Llweyn Davis. Fargo encapsulates everything the Coen Brothers do well into a single movie and even allows for fluttering moments of the emotion and heart that naysayers claim is absent from their work.
It’s no surprise that the film has suddenly seemed so inspirational and iconic as Fargo hits it’s 20th anniversary. That’s normally around when films are granted “classic” status and Fargo has certainly earned that label. The movie is quite simply a masterpiece and should be considered an entry point to one of the most consistent, eclectic, eccentric, and brilliant filmographies of any American filmmakers. If Joel and Ethan only made one movie as good as Fargo, they’d be ranked amongst the greats of their generation. The fact that it’s but one of many of their finest achievements only proves how special those oddball brothers truly are. Plus, as someone who grew up in the passive aggressively polite “Siberia with strip malls” (quoth the Coens in 1996) world of small town Canada, I must admit that Fargo reminds me of home more than any Canadian movie that I’ve ever seen. Make of that what you will.