On the 25th anniversary of the Coen Brothers’ legendary black comedy crime-thriller, Ross Evans looks back on why the iconic film has stood the test of time.
It’s hard to hide in the snow. This statement is the foundation of the 1996 film Fargo, which opens with a man en route to arrange a heinous crime. He doesn’t know it, but he’s carrying the very thing that will unravel his whole plot and bring absolute chaos to this network of sleepy midwestern towns. This is the first of several instances of characters becoming the unwitting architects of their own destruction, a key theme in many of the Coen Brothers’ films that has never felt as sharp as it does here.
Characters in Coen Brothers films have been unknowingly staging their own downfalls since Dan Hedaya hired a venomous M. Emmet Walsh to investigate his wife’s affair in the pair’s debut, Blood Simple, and it’s been at the heart of their filmography ever since. Look at their offerings in the last 15 years, from the personal apocalypse of A Serious Man to the existential cycle of failure that Llewyn Davis finds himself trapped in, right up to Joel Coen’s upcoming solo project, The Tragedy of Macbeth, an adaptation of the play that essentially formed the blueprint for stories about people being their own worst enemy.
“After half an hour of deceptively funny brutality, the cold sets in and the film really starts to question if any sort of good will appear at all.”
And if fate and predetermined failure are two of the most heinous forces at work in the pair’s films, then there’s no better showcase of that than Fargo, a film that puts forward the idea that all plans rooted in evil are doomed before they begin. It’s a film that defines a lot of the Brothers’ pet themes, building on what they had established in their earlier, more comic films with an added degree of depth and nihilism that perfectly leads into their later work. But revisiting it 25 years later also reveals it as the Brothers’ most heartfelt effort, where great warmth and spirit slowly emerge from under the pair’s trademark acidic world-weariness.
The first thirty minutes of Fargo are dark and chaotic as terrible people do terrible things to each other in stunning displays of comic nihilism. In an effort to get out of debt, William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard makes a deal with a pair of thugs to kidnap his wife, pressuring her wealthy father into paying a hefty ransom and igniting a cycle of violence that climaxes in a bloody tragedy on a Minnesota backroad. The goons in question are played by Steve Buscemi (in all of his nervy, foul-mouthed glory) and Peter Stomare (excellent as a stoic, dead-eyed man-mountain), and their antics provide a compelling argument that people are inherently evil and the world is a cruel and uncaring place. After half an hour of deceptively funny brutality, the cold sets in and the film really starts to question if any sort of good will appear at all.
But it appears it does: as a phone rings and one of cinema’s greatest heroes answers the call. Meet police chief Marge Gunderson, played by an Oscar winning Frances McDormand. Kind, heavily pregnant and with a keen eye for justice, she’s the perfect antidote to everything the film has explored throughout its first act. Where Jerry compensates for his meek nature with callous scheming, Marge leads with warmth and honesty. Jerry uses his wife as a pawn in his scheme and feigns grief on the phone to his father-in-law, Marge picks up bait for her husband on her way home and takes huge pride in his mallard paintings being put on stamps. There’s a real conflict of opposites in Fargo: warm and cold, good and evil, generosity and self-preservation.
“The Coen Brothers defuse the tensions of Reagan’s America with aplomb, but even after 25 years, these insights hold weight.”
This is something the film addresses directly in how it discusses the idea of fate. Jerry is the architect of his own downfall, where every choice he makes is founded in bad intentions and brings him closer to the inevitable consequences of his actions. As always, the Coens are keen to punish anyone who acts on self-serving malice, something made more effective by Jerry’s passive acceptance of his own actions. He justifies his crime constantly, mainly to himself, arguing that there was never any other way he could have solved this problem. This provides another contrast with Marge, who makes the conscious choice to do the right thing at every turn. If we are fated to fail when we do evil, then we can break that cycle by acting on what we know is right, and Marge is our reminder as an audience to keep trying to do better
She is such an interesting hero in 2021, a counterpoint to the notions that kindness is a weakness and cynicism is key to survival. Marge is constantly confronted by the worst of humanity, witnessing violence and cruelty and deep-seated corruption, but actively chooses to fight against it in everything that she does. This is of course a natural consequence of her line of work, but even so, there’s something striking about how ordinary her heroism is. She looks humble and unassuming against the spandex-clad saviours of modern blockbusters but that’s precisely what makes her so essential. Take the scene where she confronts one of the kidnappers: no quips, no cool irony, just an honest attempt to understand what it takes for someone to put a price on sin. The film’s deliberate lean into pure, honest earnestness is a crucial part of its charm, a focus on sincerity and good values that the Coens are wise to never dilute with irony.
The more time the viewer spends with Marge, the more the snow starts to thaw on the narrative and the first shots of hope start to appear against the amoral winter. Emboldened by the casual lies of an old classmate, Marge resolves to take action with the greatest weapon in her repertoire: the assumptions that people make based on her good nature. McDormand and Macy are in fine form, her banking on the universe’s ugly habit of mistaking friendliness for foolishness as he stutters his way into inarguable accountability. This also functions as a refreshingly non-reverential representation of the police onscreen. Marge’s handgun is swapped out for her welcoming smile, her handcuffs replaced by innocuous conversation. In an age where shallowly realised crime stories dominate the big and small screen, Fargo still feels like a welcomingly measured entry in a genre that routinely celebrates brash misconduct.
The conversation that the film climaxes with is a direct challenge to a society that celebrates the pursuit of wealth at the expense of others. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the film is set in 1987, a year in which Michael Douglas won an Academy Award for suggesting that greed is good. The Coen Brothers defuse the tensions of Reagan’s America with a-plomb, but even after 25 years, these insights hold weight. Ultimately, this is a cautionary tale about greed; about refusing to value the things you have and chasing unattainable goals down the road to ruin. There’s a lot of evil in the world, but just as much good to challenge it. Everyday acts of love and kindness, small rewards found in the shuffle that remind us as an audience that the most beautiful things in life are those that we too often take for granted. We might not have it all figured out but heck, we’re doing pretty good.