It is difficult to think of a more seminal film in the varied and illustrious careers of Joel and Ethan Coen than their Academy award-winning film Fargo (1996). Back when the film was released 25 years ago this week, viewers were led to believe that the film was a “true story” and that “the events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987”. However, in reality the directing duo had pulled off one of the biggest bluffs in modern cinema history. Ethan Coen revealed in a press conference for the film that the line was only intended to make the movie appear like in the genre of a true story movie.
This revelation from the writer and director of the film, turned out to be somewhat of a relief for audiences and indeed myself. This is because events in this film are so absurd and uncomfortable to watch, ranging from the gruesome to the damn-right-just-strange. By setting up the film as a “true story”, the brothers blurred the lines between reality and myth, creating a sense of unease in the viewer who has the impression watching the film that the events in front of them actually took place. Joel Coen said it better himself: “you don’t have to have a true story to make a true story movie.”
The film takes place in the fictional suburban town of Fargo, a hick-town, where a struggling car salesman called Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) desperately needs money for a lucrative business deal. To raise money, Lundegaard is willing to offer two criminals to kidnap his wife and split an $80,000 ransom with them for her return. Lundegaard soon starts to realise that his well thought out plan is anything but, as the situation spirals out of control in catastrophic and unexpected ways. It has all the hallmarks of a Coen brother classic: awkward characters, cathartic violence, and most of all absurd accents.
The most notable performance from the film would be that of Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), the heavily pregnant detective who defiantly pursues the truth at all costs. It is McDormand’s character that provides a softener to the film’s goriness as the comforter and forgiver of all character defects there may be. The character is yet another example of the Coen brothers’ exceptional ability to mix comedy with horror through quirky and relatable characters. Judging by the award success McDormand garnered from this performance it appears the film industry saw the same appeal.
The brilliance and wit of McDormand is something we have become used to in Coen brother films. McDormand is just one of the many frequent collaborators of the directing duo involved in this film. Cinematographer Rodger Deakins in his third Coen brothers production, and composer Carter Burrell in his sixth, both equally contribute to add atmosphere and richness to the grim and stale surroundings of Minnesota. The masterful cinematography of Deakins creates the sense of tension and weariness that viewers have come to associate with Scandi noirs today.
Influencing modern day Scandi noir is just one of the indelible impacts that Fargo has had on modern filmmaking. As already highlighted, the film questions in the most profound way the idea of truth within film. No film, not even a documentary, can seriously claim to be presenting viewers with the whole truth, only a version of it. The many moments in Fargo that appear to be going nowhere, having no relation to the story, add to the film’s authenticity, because that’s life.
Image: Xacto via Wikimedia Commons