So many of the Coen films are so damned good that it’s a real challenge to pick a favorite, but if held to the wall with a lethal electrified clapboard at my chest, I’d have to say it’s this one. Close contenders are No Country For Old Men and True Grit, but both of those were adapted from novels. This one was wholly fabricated in their minds, including the solemn, lying declaration at the beginning that it was based on a true story. It’s not. Every nuance of this film is perfect, and I’m sorry if Minnesotans were offended, thinking they were being made fun of. The Coens’ first film was Blood Simple, which treated Texans pretty harshly. I’m from Texas, and it didn’t bother me at all. So get over it, eh? Yah, okay.
The only possible reason I can see for not liking this film is the violence. It is there, certainly, and some of it is gruesome, but no one ever makes a feast of it, as is done in so many movies now. I remember being stunned at the scene when Steve Buscemi’s psycho partner puts a bullet in the state trooper’s head, and Steve just sits there with the cop’s brains all over him, muttering “Oh, daddy. Oh, daddy.” That was closely followed by another scene no other director would have done. A car chase at night on an icy road, and all we see are the distant taillights. Suddenly they’re gone, and soon we’re driving past an overturned car, headlights still on, engine still running. Come on, really? Can you imagine any other director not making a huge deal out of that? Probably with slomo and multiple camera angles? Been there, done that. This is so much more effective.
But what really sets this movie apart is the character of Marge Gunderson, as written by the Coens and brought to brilliant life by Frances McDormand. Yah, yer durn tootin’! She has pointed out something people tend to forget: that her character doesn’t appear until far into the film. The main story is really about Macy’s character, the world-class loser Jerry Lundegaard. And he is brilliant. But Marge steals the picture. Totally against what you would expect, this pregnant small-town police chief is one sharp cop, way ahead of everyone else every step of the way. And she is so darn nice! I love her, you love her, everyone loves her. Every question is followed by a brilliant smile. You could call her a cliché, I guess, but she’s such an attractive one. She is listed at #33 on the AFI’s top 100 film heroes.
This is one of the finest movies ever made. Every scene is a classic, there is no way it could have been improved. It was much better than the Oscar winner that year, The English Patient, which is already pretty much forgotten while Fargo lives on, and Bill Macy was better than Cuba Gooding, Jr., and should have won. I’m glad McDormand won, and the Coens for the screenplay. And I’m so happy it was the break-out role for Macy, who after finally coming to the attention of the casting directors after almost 20 years in the business, suddenly found himself with more work than he could handle. He is currently listed as having no less that nine projects in the works, and I’d see any of them, just on the strength of his name.
There was an excellent short on the DVD, called “Minnesota Nice,” where all the principle actors and the Coens tell their stories about the movie. Joke: What’s the best way to get four Minnesotans out of a swimming pool? Say, “Would you please get out of the pool?” William H. Macy declares that his life changed after Fargo. Suddenly he was offered parts he knew he never would have gotten, and his career really took off.