This weekend, in the UK anyway, sees the premier of the new Fargo series starring Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton. The original, directed by the hugely talented Coen brothers, has stood the test of time and is one of the quintessential Hollywood titans. My discovery of Fargo happened around 12 years ago, when I was about 14, a mere 8 years after its initial release. It was one of the films I discovered after a late night movie session with my dad, who I distinctly remember telling me ‘you must watch this film’ and then consequently falling about laughing at the scene with Frances McDormand interviewing the two prostitutes. It was also one of the films that made me want to study cinema. Probably not suitable for 14 year olds, Fargo is typically Coen-esque. Completely unexpected, difficult to predict with an enormous thick black vein of comedy. I thought it was a good idea to re watch Fargo before I watched TV Fargo (mostly because it’s been about 6 years since I’ve seen it, and my partner had never seen it).
Set in the pure white brilliance of Minneapolis (you can find a whole list of filming locations on the Wikipedia page) we follow Jerry Lundergaarde (William H Macy) who is in serious money trouble, never explicitly stated, but it seems to be linked to some cars at the car dealer he works at, owned by his father in law. He arranges to have his wife kidnapped, and then his father will pay the ransom money, part of which will reroute to him. Once he contacts the two kidnappers, played superbly by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stomare, his plan goes into action. But things quickly go awry, the bodies start piling up, the ransom goes up and his father in law insists on dealing with the ‘kidnappers’ himself. As well as this, heavily pregnant Minneapolis police chief, Marge (Frances McDormand) starts tailing the kidnappers and Jerry, leading to an outright wild goose chase which ends in probably one of the most iconic death scenes ever to be filmed, most will either remember how horrified or worryingly entertained they were at the wood chipper scene.
Having viewed things like Breaking Bad, it’s become clear to me that Jerry is the original Walter White. In the midst of a crisis, one which is he struggling to face up to, timid and having spent most of his adult life clearly being very submissive and unable to take control, passively allowing himself to get into these situations. The characterisation of this weak, passive man is probably the most important element of Fargo. Once things start going wrong in Jerry’s plan, he doesn’t really do anything to address the problems, responding to many of the violent and urgent situations by going to bed, or going to work. Although having said that, there are obvious differences between Jerry and Walter. All the same, it’s the same examination of men in crisis. Juxtaposed against the blatant masculinism of Steve Buscemi and Peter Stomare, who regularly drink, fight and have sex, it only emphasises the fact that Jerry seems woefully ill-equipped to deal with the complications of his “brilliant” money-making scheme.
The environment of Fargo is just as iconic as the story. The white vast landscapes of snow create a blank canvas, one which ensures the focus is entirely on story and character. It is simultaneously bland and rich, drab and vibrant, expansive and claustrophobic. Right down to the brilliance of the blood against the pure white snow, the environment gives away the characters and their identities, from their footprints, to their inability to escape from Minneapolis and the pressures of their lives. Even the harsh environment and danger of ice and snow cant stop the heavily pregnant Marge from pursuing our kidnappers.
There are moments of hilarity in Fargo, yah? The deadpan delivery, human approach to the absurdity of the situation in itself is utterly hilarious. The quirks of the culture in Minneapolis, rightly or wrongly provide quite a lot of the laughs. Most of the exchanges between Marge and everyone she speaks to get more and more funny as they go along. Having said that, you kind of do feel bad for laughing. I mean, is it really that hysterical to see a foot sticking out of a wood chipper? Not really, but actually yeah. Yeah it is funny. It’s a sickly comic, darkly abhorrent kind of comedy, but that’s the charm of the film. Yes it is likely to offend, yes it’s likely to make some uncomfortable, but actually I don’t think Fargo was made with the masses in mind. And to me, this is why Fargo is probably one of the best films of the last 20 years. It’s beautifully executed, full of charm (even if that charm is a bit murder-y and sinister), with the backing of an iconic soundtrack and wonderfully realised amalgamation of scenery and plot, it’s a true masterpiece of modern cinema, and I thoroughly urge you, if you haven’t already, to watch it before embarking on the tv series.
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