Joel and Ethan Coen. A pair of filmmakers who are practically a genre unto themselves. A Coen brothers movie is one with its own set of rules, it’s own understanding of human nature. A Coen brothers movie will not hesitate to subvert audience expectations and find the levity in even the most perilous of situations — a grisly murder could have just occurred and you’d still be hard pressed not to let out a slight chuckle. A Coen brothers movie peels back layers to reveal the morose underbelly of an idyllic landscape, a kind of disturbing realization that can only be found when you stop and take a look around. A Coen brothers movie can be damn near anything it wants to be, cause a whole lot can happen in the middle of nowhere. And no movie in their distinguished oeuvre embodies such a sentiment better than their black comedy crime-thriller, “Fargo,” which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this week.
Playing upon the conceit that what is to unfold is based on true events, “Fargo” follows car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard — whose greedy, but dim-witted nature is perfectly embodied by William H. Macy — as he hires two equally greedy and dim-witted thugs to kidnap his own wife in order to extort a hefty ransom from his father-in-law and settle his many debts. And, of course, as is the case with many a Coen-penned story, pretty much everything that could possibly go wrong does exactly that, which leads to the arrival of pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson — undoubtedly the most memorable character Frances McDormand has brought to life — as she relentlessly works to track down the inept criminals disturbing the peace in the quiet, snow-covered Minnesotan landscape.
To understand a film like “Fargo” is to understand everything that it’s not and everything it should never be labeled as. It is by no means typical in terms of its narrative structure, character development, or general outlook on the human experience. At first glance, it might be only too easy to accuse the film of being underwhelming, especially in comparison to the rave reviews and many accolades it accumulated upon its release. But that’s kind of the idea. It’s a movie that’s worth multiple watches, and leaves your eyes glued to the screen each and every time, because its story exposes the various anachronisms of suburban life that couldn’t possibly be revealed in a single glance. At a time when big-budget studios were in the throes of male-centered action movies, senseless comedies, and dark thrillers, a little independent film with a strong female presence proved that you can combine the best elements of all these genres and touch upon something more profoundly human than anything that came before.
For all of its outlandish genre mashing, “Fargo” more often than not feels like a legitimately real story with characters you might meet on the street or in a dingy bar. Such is the strength of the Coen brothers’ gift of gab and their keen understanding of what audiences presume to know about the movies and their relationship to society. Audiences often assume that a character’s pregnancy has significant weight on the plot and would make her weaker in their eyes. Audiences often assume that criminals are always one step ahead and know what makes their victims tick. Audiences often assume that well-to-do suburban husbands with a loving wife and son would not descend into a world of shady embezzlements and arranged kidnappings. And audiences would assume that a movie called “Fargo” would have more than just one scene set in North Dakota. But that’s not how this movie works, and, more importantly, that’s not how life works. Life is measured in the small problems that are made all the more outrageous by the folly of incompetent men whose attempts at rectification simply create more problems. “Fargo” affirms this notion by purposefully misdirecting the viewer and reminding us all that life, in essence, is but one giant mess.
Misperception is a fickle game, but it’s a game that the Coens play very well. “Fargo,” if nothing else, is all about misperception and dichotomy. The dichotomy of appearance and reality. That of an idyllic town and the horrific crimes beset upon it. That of a selfless woman with a loving husband and everything she could ever want in life, and a selfish man whose dissatisfaction with life causes him to forsake what he already has. That of the woman’s fragile body and the cunning intellect that rests firmly in her brain. That of Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare as a short-statured, over-talkative thug and his much taller accomplice who barely says a word, respectively. In the case of the Coen brothers, “Fargo” is a perfect demonstration of the kinds of dichotomies they effectively create as storytellers. The Coens flourish because of their ability to write pitch-perfect dialogue, yet craft films in which the most suspenseful moments have little to no dialogue at all. They make films with a kind of realism grounded in the simple fact that nothing about it really makes sense.
Because nothing truly makes sense, and because many events in the film seem to occur at random, every scene brings something to the narrative. The image of a person’s leg being shoved into a woodchipper is actually a brilliant exercise in uncomfortable, but well-earned humor. The awkward sequence of Jerry trying to idiotically cover up his embezzlement to the car dealership has a surprisingly natural feel to it. Even the cringeworthy scene in which Marge, taking a short break from her case, is unsuccessfully wooed by her desperate, repressed high school friend is, in itself, a major turning point in a plot full of them from beginning to end. As the Coen brothers mine their home state of Minnesota, a single territory in a frequently overlooked section of the country, and the desolate, white landscape is spattered with red, their quirky disposition is rewarded in almost every way. “Fargo” presents us with an acknowledgement of the worst and best of humankind that is, first and foremost, true to who the Coens are as not just filmmakers, but Midwesterners as well. More than anything, they appreciate the simple things in life and encourage us to do the same. In their eyes, not to do so is to lose.
It’s easy to dismiss Joel and Ethan Coen for writing from the world they build from outside the box of overarching Hollywood stereotypes, but their inability to compromise their collective vision is precisely what makes the simplistic nature of their world-building and characters so brilliant. It’s also what led “Fargo” to collect seven Oscar nominations and two wins for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress for Frances McDormand’s brilliant portrayal of the sincere, motherly detective whose wholesome demeanor seizes the day over the selfishness, corruption and evil of the men who don’t comprehend that there’s more to life than a little money. Next to their Best Picture-winning “No Country for Old Men,” you would be hard pressed to find a film that remains as true to their stripped-down approach to storytelling, and as wholly accessible, as the film that let the world know they were serious talents. After 25 years, “Fargo” is also one of their only films to remind us, in the most honest way possible, of the hope that is sure to be found once the gloomy winter ends and the blood-stained snow has melted. In that way, it just might be a true story after all.