Wednesday, March 9, 2016

A Reel 20: FARGO

“What kind of trouble are you in, Jerry?”

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Joel and Ethan Coen’s FARGO.

Often referred to as a black-comedy crime-thriller, FARGO tells the story of a pregnant Minnesota police chief (played by Frances McDormand) who investigates three road-side killings which ensue when a struggling car salesman (played by William H. Macy) hires two criminals to kidnap his wife in order to extort and make away with the ransom. Although the beginning of the film states “this is a true story”, the film was not based on a specific event, but rather inspired on a conglomeration of several crimes, some of which took place in the area the Coens grew up; the suburbs of Minneapolis.

FARGO was the seventh feature film from the Coen Brothers, with Joel listed as director and Ethan as producer, with the both of them as the credited screenwriters. With the script calling for the story to take place during a harsh winter in the upper-midwest, filming began in January of 1995 in the Minneapolis area, but due to an unusually mild winter, production would move to other areas of Minnesota and North Dakota. No scenes were filmed in the area of the actual Fargo, North Dakota. Cinematographer Roger Deakins handled the filming; his third of an eventual 12 collaborations with the Coens.

Keeping the local flavor intact was important to the Coens, who cast a strong group of actors who could convincingly pull off the accent. The regional accent, referred to as the “Minnesota Nice” and the “singsong”, was taught to the cast by several dialect coaches. The principle actors, Frances McDormand and William H. Macy, spent time in the region with the locals to perfect their accents. The rest of the cast was rounded out by Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, and Harve Presnell.

Upon release, FARGO would not set the box office on fire, but it was a hit with critics, who found the violent, yet quirky comedy-thriller a joy to take in. Highly respected critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert named it the best film of 1996, and Ebert would later list it as the 4th best of the 1990’s.

FARGO would play at the Cannes Film Festival that year, where it would win the Best Director prize. It would be nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, and would win two; Best Actress for Frances McDormand and Best Original Screenplay for the Coens. FARGO would later land on several lists penned by the American Film Institute (AFI), including a ranking #84 on its famed 100 Years...100 Movies list, along with McDormand’s character ranked #33 on 100 Heroes & Villains. In 2006, FARGO would be selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.


This Blogger hated FARGO in 1996, and probably didn’t like it very much ten years later. But as age sets in and perspectives change, a deep appreciation for FARGO was found. It is a film which balances many things at once; comedy and tragedy, crime and drama…and manages to poke fun at local flavor while staying respectful and true to the people, and despite being a murder-mystery, manages to be a very fun movie to watch. It has become a pop culture icon with an infinite number of zinger-quotes and characters which are memorable and a pleasure to hang out with. In the long run, the success of FARGO would enable the Coens to basically do whatever the hell they wanted for the rest of their careers, and their follow-up, THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998), cemented their reputations as the most diverse filmmakers in the business. The Coens would borrow from FARGO for the rest of their careers, using botched kidnappings and bags full of money in their eventual Best Picture winner NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), and their most recent romp, HAIL CAESAR! (2016). FARGO has all the elements that a great film should have; drama, laughs, good characters and an interesting, evolving story. Will FARGO hold up for another 20 years? You betcha.

“There’s more to life than a little money, you know.”


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