By P.H.I.Berroll

Of the many striking scenes in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo, two are especially memorable.

One is the opening sequence, where the credits roll over a landscape of utter blankness – a snow-covered highway in rural North Dakota – interrupted by a single car, towing another vehicle.  It’s reminiscent of the first scene of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and equally disturbing; it suggests both purity and terrifying isolation.

The other occurs about 15 minutes later:  a housewife is sitting in her living room, watching a perky local morning show, when two men wearing black ski masks show up at her back door.  The incongruity is almost comical… until one of the men pulls out a crowbar and starts smashing the door glass.

Welcome to the funny, frightening, and very unique world of the brothers Coen.  Since their debut film, Blood Simple (1984), they have created a body of work that refuses to follow the conventions of mainstream American filmmaking – crime dramas with frequent moments of humor, comedies laced with despair.  Though their films have been critically praised, they’ve never made the kind of money that impresses Hollywood.  But they continue to go their own quirky way.

Fargo has been advertised as “a homespun murder mystery,” but there’s very little mystery involved; we know whodunit, and how, and why.  As in Blood Simple, the story deals with a criminal scheme that goes horribly awry.

In Fargo, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a Minneapolis used-car salesman in desperate financial straits, arranges to have his wife kidnapped.  He plans to get the ransom money, which he will then split with the kidnappers, from his rich, tightwad father-in-law (Harve Presnell).  Jerry is convinced that the plan is “foolproof.”  He’s wrong, due in large measure to the thugs – edgy, bug-eyed Carl (Steve Buscemi) and hulking, monosyllabic Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) – that he hires to do the job.

As the scheme unravels, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), the police chief from the small town of Brainerd, across the border in North Dakota, enters the case.  Marge is the unlikeliest crime fighter since Miss Marple: she’s seven months pregnant, and talks like a Pillsbury Bake-off contestant.  (Coming across a scene of roadside carnage, she calmly opines, “I’d be very surprised if our suspect was from Brainerd,” before taking a moment to throw up.)

Marge is smart, and she works hard; her problem as a cop is that she has no comprehension of evil.  She simply can’t understand why people do bad things, which makes her incapable of thinking like the bad guys.  As a result, she is forever playing catch-up in the case – she doesn’t crack it so much as pick up the pieces.  At most, her persistence causes her targets to panic and make stupid mistakes, though they probably would have been just as stupid without her help.

But Marge is a creature of her surroundings.  This is the Far North, land of Lake Wobegon and Lawrence Welk, where the descendants of Scandinavian pioneers are polite, optimistic, and thoroughly repressed.  Nobody shows any more emotion than is absolutely necessary, and bad manners seem almost as shocking as kidnapping and murder.

The source of most of the film’s humor, and horror, is the contrast between the hoodlums and the locals, as if some Quentin Tarantino characters (Buscemi co-starred in Reservoir Dogs) had been dropped into The Farmer’s Daughter. The Coens play this schism for all it’s worth.  Carl, in particular, is pushed to the edge by having to deal with these somnolent farm folks who say things like “You’re darn tootin'” and “There in a jif.”  And Marge’s final speech shows how much she still doesn’t understand about the dark side of human nature.

McDormand, who starred in Blood Simple and is married to Joel Coen, is wonderful as Marge, making the character completely believable by refusing to condescend to her.  She is well matched by Buscemi, an actor who excels at playing fast-talking, ambitious weasels who inevitably screw up.  But the key performance comes from Macy, best known for his work with David Mamet (most recently as the hapless professor in Oleanna).  He emphasizes the hypocrisy of Jerry, who sinks into evil while pathetically holding on to the image of himself as a nice guy.  It’s a contradiction that symbolizes the conflict at the heart of the film.

Fargo has its gaps and loose ends, sometimes moving from A to C without stopping at B. And there’s more violence than is really necessary, though at least the Coens present it with the ugliness it deserves rather than Tarantino’s sadistic humor.  But the movie is worth seeing for its sheer originality.  The Coens have yet to make a truly great film, but Fargo, like most of their work, is more interesting than 90 percent of the competition.

Originally posted on, 1996.