Andreas Mertin reviews Fargo by Joel and Ethan Coen.
It’s a homespun murder, dont’cha know. Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) dreams of becoming rich like his father-in-law, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell), by investing in a parking garage development. To do this he needs cash, and the best solution he can devise is to have his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) kidnapped so that he can collect the ransom money, knowing that her wealthy father would more than willingly pay it for her safe return. To do this, he hires two career criminals, Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) and Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi). But things go wrong from the outset, and as the body count rises the events spiral out of Jerry’s control. But you betcha that pregnant police chief Margie Gunderson (Francis McDormand) is gonna use all her police cunning to solve this grisly crime.
Although boldly claiming at its outset that “this is a true story” the film is in fact entirely fictitious (or as the Coen’s put it “the only thing true about it is that it’s a story”). This may frustrate some, wishing for fidelity from a creative medium. But this is not some trick by the Coens. Instead it speaks to the parody inherent in the film, seen most clearly with its dark humour that mixes graphic violence with the “Minnesota nice” that gives the film its homespun feel. Both are exaggerations, with the latter something of an affectionate send up of their hometown (the Coen’s are from the same state). In the end, Fargo is a film where the intersection of dreams has fatal consequences. Jerry desperately wants to increase his prosperity, needing a lot of money to make property investments. This leads him to hire the two professional criminals as part of an absurd scheme that he honestly believes will end well. Gaear and Carl likewise desire the money, with each trying to take it away from the other in the end. In contrast to this we have Jerry’s father-in-law, Wade Gustafson, and his with Jean and son Scotty, who through their financial security have a safe, content but naive, doe-eyed life. This is revealed as something given, with Wade’s fortune meaning that “Jean and Scotty never have to worry.” And in contrast to both we are presented Margie and Norm Gunderson. They are content with the lives they lead, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still have ambitions, as demonstrated with Norm’s desire to have his painting selected for a stamp in a competition. It is about the contrast of dreamers and those who are content, but where the dreamers are capable of unspeakable acts.
Fargo is a unique blend of dark slapstick, local colour and parody of the dreams of middle America.