With 1996’s Fargo, Joel and Ethan Coen, established as directors of stylized and densely plotted films, took a big stab at realism, applying their biting humor and talent for sharply observed characters to a venal kidnapping scheme in suburban Minnesota. Though long pegged as icy and disinterested writers, they lovingly mapped this territory using prominent landmarks of culture, language, climate, and geography.
Fargo is an accumulation of tiny, perfect details: ear hats, car window scrapers, Paul Bunyan statues, tan Cutlass Cieras, woodchippers — iconography so singular that you could dangle miniatures from a charm bracelet and people would recognize the reference. The film is a work of brick-by-brick world-building in the service of characters whose ordinariness is just as carefully crafted.
A work of fiction, Fargo (playing in a 4K restoration) nonetheless opens with a title card claiming its story is true. “At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed,” it says. “Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” Many people believed it, which is a tribute to the film’s strong sense of place and the weight of its characters. That claim to truth freed the Coens to set a hugely pregnant police chief on the trail of two murderous and stupid kidnappers, to portray ordinary people as a bit more eccentric than might be plausible, and to poke gentle fun at the “Minnesota nice” stereotype.
That regionally specific kindheartedness is embodied by Margie Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who manifests onscreen like an angel of compassion and decency following every horrific act of bloodshed. A smart cop, she’s the film’s most sensible and competent character, but she isn’t spared from the Coens’ waggish sense of fun. Their agenda is to depict the banality of good along with the banality of evil. They include tight, ridiculous shots of Margie eating food; they subject her to a cringingly uncomfortable lunch date with an amorous acquaintance from high school.
Fargo‘s recurrent theme of fertility is often voiced by the television shows its characters watch, but Margie is the most conspicuous example. She’s the explicitly maternal promise of the return of sunshine and hope following a cold, dark winter — not to mention explosions of blood and violence. After two decades of watching the film, I still feel relief and calm whenever she waddles into the frame.
What the well-received FX series Fargo gets wrong about the film provides a good survey of the traits that differentiate the Coens from ordinary filmmakers. In the original Fargo, it’s enough to know that Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is in trouble; the Coens never delve into the origin of his financial desperation. “These are personal matters…they needn’t, uh…,” Jerry stammers. And that’s all you get. Most importantly, they don’t reveal what happened to Carl Showalter’s buried satchel of cash. Have you found yourself in idle moments over the past two decades wondering what might have happened to the money? That’s because mysteries are enduring gifts.
The series avoids mystique, actively dissipating it as though waving off a fart. It likes answers — really dumb ones — and the only questions it leaves on the table aren’t offerings to its audience, they’re the shortcomings of its writing. It mistakes the quotidian for realism and it reduces Fargo to blood, snow, and Upper Midwest American English. In other words, instead of exploring the territory the Coens beautifully surveyed, the show models its features directly on the film. It’s like a map drawn from a map, the absolute clomping boot of nerdism. Its use of the film’s preambular claim to truth couldn’t feel more ridiculous.
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Opens January 22, Film Forum