1996 / Best Actress / Best Director / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actor

Film #404: Fargo (1996)

A few posts ago I reviewed Pulp Fiction and mentioned how Quentin Tarantino’s success propelled so-called independent film-makers into the mainstream. Another couple of film-makers who achieved the same level of success during the 1990s were Joel and Ethan Coen. Throughout the 1980s the Coens made a number of cult movies such as Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing, which were met with critical acclaim but were never commercially successful. The first hint of success for the Coens was with 1991’s Barton Fink which was nominated for three Oscars however it was a film released five years later that really put them on the map.

Nominated for seven Oscars, Fargo was a darkly comic piece which combined the brothers’ brilliant ear for dialogue with a story that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1940s Film Noir. Although the opening title credits claim that Fargo was based on a true story it was more that the film’s central plot was constructed from a number of grizzly murder cases. Set in the 1980s, the film follows useless second hand car salesman Jerry Lundegaard as he attempts to get himself out of bankruptcy by having his own wife kidnapped. Jerry’s belief is that his wealthy father-in-law will pay the ransom set by the kidnappers and he will then in turn be able to clear the debt that he’s found himself in. But the plan is beset with a number of problems namely that the recommended criminal Carl as brought along the stoic, almost mute Gaear along with him. It’s made clear that Gaear has a short fuse and soon after the kidnapping he kills three people all of whom witness the woman’s body in the back of their car. As the murders happened outside Brainerd, Minnesota the town’s local police chief Marge Gunderson is called in to investigate the crime. Marge isn’t your usual pioneering cooper as she’s heavily pregnant and also seems more like a housewife than she does detective. Marge’s kindly approach does get results though as she is able to chase the criminals’ car back to Jerry’s lot. But her willingness to believe everything she’s told means that Jerry gets away Scott free and her opinion only changes after a run-in with an old school friend. Fargo’s final fifteen minutes are especially violence with one character being shot in the cheek and then finished over in a very unusual way. Let’s just say I’ll never look at a woodchipper in the same way again.

Fargo is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before on this blog and that’s one of the things that made it stand out to Academy voters. The film was nominated for seven awards include Best Director and Best Picture and actually triumphed in two categories. The first of these was Best Actress, with Joel Coen’s wife Frances McDormand picking up the prize for her brilliant portrayal of Marge. Though I’d seen Fargo several times before, I didn’t realise that it was thirty minutes into the film before Marge arrives on screen. Having watched a fair few Oscar winning turns over the course of the challenge, I was surprised to see how subtle McDormand’s performance in this film was when compared against previous victors. McDormand never appears to be acting and this naturalistic turn as the kindly police chief meant that the actress’ honour was more than deserved. The Coens won a further award for their witty and well-constructed screenplay which was perfectly paced and featured a gripping murder mystery.

The frozen landscape of the film is perfectly captured by legendary cinematographer, and long-time Coen collaborator, Roger Deakins. Despite eleven Oscar nominations Deakins has never won which I feel is one of the biggest errors the Academy has ever made. Another nominee, William H Macy, gave an incredibly frantic turn as the sad-sack car salesman Jerry who is in over his head from the very beginning. Steve Buscemi and Peter Stomare also make for an excellent pairing as Carl and Gaear with the former doing all the talking and the latter just looking menacing. There’s no denying that Fargo is an excellent film which rightfully propelled the Coen Brothers into the mainstream where they belonged. Their next picture, The Big Lebowski, was another cult hit but it would be another eleven years before the brothers had another film nominated for the big prize at The Oscars.


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