Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Fargo (1996)

Dir. Joel Cohen
Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell

Fargo almost got mis-filed. The city of Fargo is located in the state of North Dakota. However, other than an opening scene in Fargo and a closing scene in Bismarck none of the rest of the film is set in North Dakota. Instead, the film is quite firmly set in Minnesota, and makes great play of several of the state’s idiosyncrasies. Good job I twigged rather than leaving it another eleven weeks and getting a nasty surprise. 

The plot of Fargo centres on a crime gone wrong. Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is so deep in debt that he can only think of one way to cover his losses: he arranges for his wife to be kidnapped. Her father is very wealthy – and very condescending towards Jerry. This ridiculous scheme sees Jerry making contact with two criminals in Fargo – the weaselly and “kinda funny-lookin’” Carl (Steve Buscemi) and the taciturn Norse giant Gaear (Peter Stormare). For a car and $40,000 (half of what Jerry says will be the ransom) they agree to drive to his house, kidnap his wife, and then release her once Jerry delivers the money.

As with all great criminal plans it falters on one small mistake. Carl forgets to take the dealer plates off the car, and they are stopped by a policeman. A ham-fisted attempt to bribe the trooper doesn’t work and Gaear shoots him dead. A passing car sees Carl dragging away the corpse; Gaear pursues, runs them off the road, and then shoots the survivors. This crime brings in the heavily pregnant police detective Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) to investigate. She traces the car back to Lundegaard’s showroom; upon returning to Brainerd she is lucky enough to spot the vehicle itself and apprehend the remaining criminal. 

By that point there is only one remaining. Seven people die, two are arrested, and the million dollars of ransom is lost in the snow. The washed-out palette makes great play of the blue-white snow-bound landscape, contrasting it with the black of the road, fences and trees, and the sudden red of violence (be that blood seeping out into the snow or the red parka of a victim). I found myself comparing certain aspects to the intentionally graphic-novel-like Sin City.  It is quite a noir film. In places. Gaear’s inventive use of a wood-chipper for instance. But Marge is in no way a cynical hard-bitten noir hero like Gittes in Chinatown or Frank McCloud in Key Largo. She is an optimistic, upbeat, pleasant woman, full of niceties. When old school-friend Mike makes a move on her she knocks him back forcefully but kindly. She uses manners as a lubricant of social interaction. When she comes to speak to Jerry she does it with a smile on her face and an open manner – but she is also quite purposeful about getting a seat and drawing him into conversation. Even in what could be very dark scenes there is lightness from her performance – witness her investigation of the crashed car. She almost throws up – but that is not a reaction to the deaths, but just morning sickness. And of course she listens to what the other officer has to say and then derails him with a “I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred per cent on your police work there Lou”. Her constant eating and her satisfied home life contrast with the darkness of the crime she is investigating. Her safe, slightly dull existence is what we should be aspiring to, not the brutal, sleazy world of Carl and Gaear.

Marge always went one step too far in the
Design-Your-Own-Sledge competition

Fargo did great guns when it was released. The Coens had developed a reputation as film-makers, but this was them breaking into the mainstream. Frances McDormand won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Marge. The film is certainly watchable, but considering that it post-dates Quentin Tarantino’s arrival into the world of cinema I can’t help thinking that is doesn’t have much of an edge to it – despite sudden and shocking convulsions of violence. In Tarantino’s work the humour comes from hip wit and word-play; one can imagine quick reactions in speech and quick reactions in fights being natural bedfellows. In Fargo the humour comes from the characterisation and the personalities involved. All the best character-driven humour gets the audience to sympathise with the subject, even when the people involved are the likes of Basil Fawlty or David Brent. But we cannot really sympathise with the twitchy indebted Jerry, without knowing how he came to be in that debt in the first place, despite his “you’re darned tootin’”s and “what the heck”s. And we certainly cannot sympathise with the two criminals. So the film is beautiful to watch, entertaining to see, but still somehow lacks something to turn it, in my eyes, from a good-enough film into a classic one.

What have I learnt about Minnesota?
When the snow comes down in Minnesota it comes down very heavily. Parked cars can get covered, incautious drivers can end up off the roads, lakes are frozen over, and everyone has to swaddle up in boots, padded parkas and jackets.

To go with the snowy landscape there is a very strong Scandinavian heritage in Minnesota. One can spot this from the names of characters that appear: Marge and Norm Gunderson, Jerry Lundegaard, Wade Gustafson, Gaear Grimsrud. There is a distinctive local accent with traces of Scandinavian inflections and flat vowels. This goes together with a personality known as ‘Minnesota nice’, which places an emphasis on manners and politeness.

Brainerd, mid-way between Minneapolis and Fargo was the home of Paul Bunyan, the legendary giant lumberjack, and Babe the Blue Ox.  

Can we go there?
Fargo might be named after a town in North Dakota, but all shooting took place in Minnesota. After their psychedelic desert odyssey in Raising Arizona this was a return to home territory for the Coens, who grew up in Minneapolis. As such they knew the terrain well.

The King of Clubs in Fargo, where Jerry first meets Carl and Gaear, was not in Fargo at all – it was actually on Central Avenue in Minneapolis (though it has since been razed). Likewise Jerry’s car dealership was in the suburb of Richfield off Interstate 494; it is now somewhere under the corporate headquarters of Best Buy. The Lundegaard’s house was on Pillsbury Avenue, Minneapolis. Carl steals a licence plate from the parking lot of Minneapolis-St Paul Airport; he later meets up with Wade Gustafson in the lot of the private-members Minneapolis Club. The Jose Feliciano concert he takes an escort girl to was at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres south-west of Minneapolis. Marge stays at the Radisson in Minneapolis.

Outside of Minneapolis, the kidnapper’s cabin can be found north of Stillwater - and was sold on ebay. The police station in Edina stood in for that in Brainerd. And the giant Paul Bunyan statue is not in Brainerd either. It is the one thing that can actually be found in North Dakota, located on Pembina County Highway 1 outside of Bathgate. However, since 2003 there has been a Paul Bunyan Land amusement park in Brainerd.

Overall Rating: 3/5

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