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Saturday, July 19, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 21 - Fargo (1996)

Fargo (1996; Polygram
Filmed Entertainment)
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare

The Coen Brothers have been appeared on my list numerous times thus far and Fargo marks their final film featured in this series.  Fargo is a twisted black comedy from two filmmakers who know how to direct the most disturbing things in such a way that they are actually funny.  This is not uncommon, but what makes Fargo work so well is its tone.  The film itself seems rather condescending towards its own characters, which is strange and, for some, off-putting. However, I find it to simply add to the humor already on display.

The film centers on a small town family man named Jerry (Macy) who, motivated by a personal financial crisis, pays two thugs to kidnap his wife for a ransom he intends to collect.  However, when the hired guns (played by Buscemi and Stormare) botch the kidnapping significantly, resulting in a triple homicide, they are forced to push up the time frame and get the job over with so they can get out of town.  What they did not count on was a smart and unrelenting small town sheriff named Marge (McDormand) who, despite being very, very pregnant, is hot on their trail.  

Fargo is a film that can be interpreted in any number of ways.  Typically, in a film like this, the Keystone Cops trope takes hold, and things go haywire, but ultimately a mess is left.  I see the Coen brothers playing with expectations here.  The idea of the smart cop running a tight ship in a small town in North Dakota is not entirely unbelievable, however film cliches dictate that if you are not a big city cop in a trench coat, you are bad at your job.  Here we have a movie that could have easily played it safe, keeping things very simple and doing nothing fresh and it would have still been a funny romp of a crime flick.  Yet, the Coen brothers transform what would have been (in likely any other hands) a completely generic murder flick into something clever and unique.  

Other elements that are open to subjective opinion are the details of what exactly Jerry is really trying to pull.  We know he pitches to his boss (who is also his father-in-law) that he wants money for a “lot”, possibly intending to start his own auto dealership, but there is also a running subplot involving him being unable to verify a list of serial numbers for some merchandise.  The widely-accepted opinion regarding this is that he was, in some way, involved in fraud, and is possibly responsible for embezzlement.   This is never clearly fleshed out, however.  Many of the details of whatever he is involved in are provided, but there is no overt exposition, and it as a result, the audience is never entirely sure what Jerry wants the money for, and why he was willing to go to such lengths to get it.

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