What has gone largely forgotten in the years since Joel and Ethan Coen cemented their reputations as a creative force that’s both quirky and financially reliable is that the movie that started it all was very much a make-or-break moment for the two. Fresh off three box office bombs – with their most recent, 1994’s “The Hudsucker Proxy,” being of the Hiroshima variety, bringing in not quite a tenth of its $30 million budget – the Coens needed a hit, badly. What better way to reverse your fortunes, then, than to write a pitch-black comedy about a tragically ill-conceived ransom scheme?
Jerry Lundegaard (a never-better William H. Macy) is in trouble. He needs money – though we never discover the reason for his insurmountable debt – so he hires a couple of halfwit petty criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife and extort a sizeable ransom from his wealthy father-in-law (Harve Presnell). When the two are stopped by a trooper and an attempt to bribe him fails, they kill the trooper and a young couple who witnessed them dragging the body. Enter Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), a very pregnant police chief assigned to solve her coworker’s murder. Thanks to the salamander-type trail the kidnappers left behind, Marge is soon knocking on the door to the car dealership where Jerry works, unaware that he is indirectly involved in the murder.
The actions in “Fargo” are not funny, but the characters are hilarious, from the friendly but vacant prostitutes who give Marge useless descriptions of the kidnappers to Marge’s high school classmate – who’s Japanese, and has the thickest Minnesota accent you’ve ever heard – hitting on her over coffee. Navigating the chaos is Marge, absorbing each wacky new development like it’s just another day at the office. As the lead, McDormand naturally gets the juiciest material, but everyone in the cast gets at least one laugh (well, except for Stormare, who’s flat-out psycho), and that distribution of the funny leads to one of the most well-rounded and unforgettable movies in the Coen’s catalog.
McDormand’s Academy Award for her work here is much deserved. She wisely makes Marge as normal as possible, an endless source of support to her underemployed husband and someone who keeps her cool even when a guilty-as-sin car salesman is giving her the runaround. Speaking of that car salesman, Macy was positively robbed of an Oscar. (It went to Cuba “Show me the money” Gooding Jr.) Jerry loses control of his plan from the moment he launches it, and watching him desperately try to regain control, and the occasional fits of frustration he suffers along the way (particularly the moment when he’s scraping ice off of his windshield), is both heartbreaking and pathetic, though not necessarily in that order.
What makes “Fargo” so fascinating is the way it sings the absurd while dealing with a deathly serious matter. That the Coens are able to make this brutal ordeal so amusing, without undermining the danger, is no easy feat. It’s no surprise, then, that they would go on from here to spend the next four years exploring sunnier – but no less stranger – territory in “The Big Lebowski” and “O Brother Where Art Thou?,” although that didn’t stop them from finding a way to kill Steve Buscemi on screen one more time. That’s the Coen way.(4 / 5)