1. “Fargo” – dir. Joel (and Ethan) Coen, 1996

Contrary to popular belief, my favourite movie of all time is not Meatballs III: Summer Job, it’s Fargo. All hilarious witticisms aside, this should not be breaking news for anyone reading this. Anyone who has had the (dis)pleasure of speaking to me for an extended period of time will know that I am infatuated with four things: the television programme Curb Your Enthusiasm; the comedian Stewart Lee; the sport of Rugby Union; and, above all else, the film Fargo. Without any hyperbole, I would have seen Fargo between fifty and a hundred times. When I watch it now, I say the dialogue along with the characters, as though I’m playing some weird kind of Minnesotan karaoke and there’s a little red ball bouncing over every ‘yah’ (a word said 181 times in the film).

I have only spent eighteen years on this bizarre planet, and though spending the majority of these years as a dedicated cinephile, there are thousands of films that I want to see but haven’t yet. I’m sure I would love all of them. I have never seen Tokyo Story, Nashville or L’Avventura. I have never seen Sunrise, Satantango or Wild Strawberries. But I can honestly say that Fargo will always be my favourite movie, because I highly doubt that any film will affect me in the same way that Fargo did the first time I saw it. “It’s just like that scene in Fargo” is probably the second most frequented phrase in my vernacular, beaten only by “it’s just like that scene in Curb Your Enthusiasm”.

Fargo is the product of Joel and Ethan Coen, who are possibly my favourite directors ever as well. They are the minds behind fascinating crime epics like Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing, warped and wacky comedies like Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and twisted Westerns like No Country for Old Men and True Grit. Their films defy genre, convention and logic. But there is one film that towers over the rest of their oeuvre. There is one film that, in my opinion, towers over every other film ever made. If I haven’t emphasised/clarified/repeated myself enough yet, Fargo is undoubtedly/unreservedly/utterly my favourite ever movie.

Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is a discontented car salesman who is buried in loans and debts. However, he devises a scheme to raise all the required money – a scheme that should ensure that no-one gets hurt. He hires two criminals – the volatile, impertinent Carl Showalter (the one and only Steve Buscemi) and the brooding, taciturn Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) – to kidnap his wife. The plan is that Jerry will ask his wife’s wealthy father Wade (Harve Presnell) to pay the $80 000 ransom, and Jerry will halve the ransom money with Showalter and Grimsrud, keeping $40 000 each. However, Jerry will tell Wade that the ransom is really $1 000 000, leaving Jerry with $960 000. Things turn horribly awry on one night in Brainerd, Minnesota, when three innocent people are shot dead by Grimsrud. And all this happens before our protagonist arrives. Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is the local Brainerd Police Chief, and gets the call to investigate the triple homicide early on one freezing winter morning. Oh, and she’s seven months pregnant as well.

It’s extremely easy to see why Fargo is one of the best movies ever made. It’s so easy that I really don’t know where to start. I think I’ll start with the screenplay. Let’s get this straight from the outset – it’s the greatest screenplay ever written. The dialogue makes Aaron Sorkin look like Damon Lindelof in comparison. Not one line is wasted, yet somehow, not a single word is on-the-nose. Some of the lines are poignant, some of them confronting, but most of them are just absolutely hilarious. The next thing to get straight from the outset is that Fargo is one of the funniest movies ever made as well. Every time Steve Buscemi opens his mouth, I am entranced. From his outburst at a parking attendant for making him pay the regulatory $4 for using the car park – “I guess you think you’re, you know, like an authority figure, with that stupid fucking uniform, hey buddy? King clip-on-tie there, big fucking man, huh? You know these are the limits of your life, man!” – to the (quite reasonable) quandary “How the fuck do you split a fucking car, you dummy? With a fucking chainsaw?”, every line he says is pure gold.

The unpredictable plot spirals more than an M. C. Escher painting. Honestly, who could have seen the wood chipper coming? And every scene is indispensible to the film, but for intangible, almost metaphysical reasons. A common theme emerging in all my favourite films is how not every scene exists purely to advance the plot, and this is no clearer than in Fargo. Despite the engrossing complexities of the plot, the film runs for an extremely efficient 94 minutes, and is full of seemingly extraneous scenes. Every scene builds tension, builds stakes and, most importantly, builds character.

It has become almost imperative to write about (or sometimes even justify) the ‘Mike Yanagita scene’. For those of you who haven’t been enlightened enough to see Fargo yet, this scene consists of Marge’s old schoolmate Mike meeting her for lunch after years not having seen each other. Mike comes onto Marge, describing her as “such a super lady”, but Marge sternly declines. It’s a hilarious scene, but it has no discernible relevance to the other events taking place. If Fargo was a studio film, it surely would have been cut. But the Coens include it for a reason, as they do with every seemingly superfluous sequence. Firstly, it would be a crime of Showalter and Grimsrud proportions not to include a scene as funny as this in the film. Secondly, this scene eventually acts as something of an epiphany for Marge. Mike tells Marge that his wife died of leukaemia. However it turns out that Mike was never married, and lives with his parents, and was merely pining for Marge’s sympathy and affection. Marge is blindsided by this revelation, and the simple fact that she had been lied to, prompting her to reinterview Jerry, who she now suspects may have lied about his involvement in the crimes as well. Finally, and most importantly, it further elucidates Marge’s character. We realise that her blind trust and naive generosity can be both her biggest asset and her biggest fault.

In Fargo, the Coens have created some of the most wonderfully rounded characters in any film ever. Some critics criticise the Coens for being too distanced and cold, yet I find most of their films to be affectionate and warm. Critics have even said of Fargo that the characters are mere caricatures of Minnesotan life – characters that the Coens look down on. Richard Corliss described Fargo as an embodiment of “the Coens’ giddy contempt toward people who talk and think Minnesotan”, failing to recognise that the Coens themselves are from Minnesota, and I highly doubt that they mutually possess a kind of cultural self-loathing. As much as I try to value everyone’s personal opinions on any particular film, and respect that each individual responder should interpret any text in their own particular way (blah blah blah #postmodernism), I cannot see how Fargo is condescending in any way whatsoever. Anyone who thinks the film is condescending to its characters possibly thinks that because they are condescending to the characters themselves, and don’t realise it.

The Coens love many of these characters. Each character is conceived with delicate attention to detail, brimming with traits and arcs that make every individual – even the very minor characters – unique. Marge is simple but intelligent, contented but dedicated. She is trusting and trustworthy, loyal and honest. She is dryly witty, fearless and welcoming. In some ways, she is hyperbolic, but she is never a caricature as there is an underlying depth, honesty and integrity to her character. Jerry’s motives are too clouded and ambiguous for him to be considered a caricature. And Showalter too is a wholly original creation – unhinged, unpredictable, unlikeable. These are people, as idiosyncratic as they undoubtedly are.

The Coens won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and Frances McDormand won Best Lead Actress for her role as Marge. She is absolutely phenomenal in the role, knowing exactly the right moments to elicit humour, pathos or shock from the audience and doing so with sublime aplomb. Her reactions to everything that happens in the film underscore the emotional depth of her character, and the scene where she poetically reveals that “there’s more to life than a bit of money” is truly beautiful. Steve Buscemi rates a mention as well. I think many people assume I’m joking when I say that Steve Buscemi is my favourite actor of all time, but it’s true. His weedy and seedy mannerisms, violent explosions and general sense of despair and malaise are so compelling to watch in Fargo.

Then there’s Roger Deakins’ gorgeously languid cinematography. And there’s Coens’ assured direction. And their precise editing. And Carter Burwell’s haunting score…

I could continue listing why Fargo is one of the best movies ever made for thousands more words, and if I thought people could be bothered reading it, then I would. Now, give yourself a pat on the back for making it this far in my verbose review, because now you’re going to find out why Fargo is my favourite movie of time. It’s obviously an incredible achievement in art and entertainment, but that doesn’t completely explain why Fargo is my favourite film and why it will never be usurped by any other film.

Fargo was my light-bulb moment. It was my epiphany. It opened my eyes to the world of cinema like no other film, and as sentimental as this sounds, I suppose it changed my life. I’m allowed to get sappy, because I am a self-appointed cineaste and Fargo is the one movie that means more to me than any other movie. In it, I saw a level of unadulterated, transcendent genius that I had never seen in any other film, and have never seen since. It was the film that transformed me from a film lover to a film obsessive.

The first time I saw Fargo, I was ten, and had hired it from the local Civic Video along with a slew of other movies. The first time I watched it, after the excruciatingly beautiful final shot fades (which I won’t spoil), I knew I had experienced something that I didn’t quite understand. I didn’t really follow the film very closely; instead, I was entranced by the cinematography. It was the first time I realised that the camera can be used to tell a story as much as a screenplay could. It was the first time I began to notice how the positioning of each shot had a different effect on me; from the distancing effect of the high-angle shot of Jerry scraping ice off his car windscreen to the pure isolation evoked by the long shots of the endless white permeating the Minnesotan landscape.

Because of this, I watched it again straight after seeing it the first time. The second time I watched it, I saw it as a brutal thriller. The violence unnerved me in a way that it didn’t the first time, and now that I wasn’t scrutinising the minutiae of the photography, I was tense the whole time. Even though I now knew what was going to happen next, I forgot in the moment, and its plot twists kept surprising me. So gripping was the film the second time around, I watched it again immediately. This time, I saw it as a sincere, human character study. I saw it as a tragic study of ordinary people and their ordinary lives in an ordinary (albeit isolated) part of America. It was a tragic portrait of the perils of ambition and the instantaneousness of death (though, at the time, I lacked the intellectual faculties to express its themes in such a pretentious manner). Then I watched it again. The fourth time I watched it, I saw it as the funniest movie I’d ever seen. I started to notice the dialogue, and how none of what the characters say is terribly important; it’s just plain funny.

This all sounds very coy and neat, but it’s true. That day, I watched Fargo four times, and I had a different emotional response to the film every time. It changed my perception of cinema, and instantly became my favourite movie ever. Now, barely a day goes past where I don’t think of Fargo.

If you have made it to the end of this long and repetitive review/introspection, then I sincerely thank you for persisting. I hope you will now seek it out if you have never seen it, or revisit it if it has been a while. Inevitably, you will be underwhelmed by Fargo now, just because I have built it up so much. I’m sure you won’t have the same transformative experience I had when first watching Fargo, but I will never stop recommending it to everyone I encounter. If I was strapped to a chair and forced to undergo some kind of Ludovico-style treatment where all I could watch for the rest of my life was Fargo, then I think I would be fine with that. It was on television late the other night, and I flicked it on and thought “ah this is my favourite scene!” It was a scene near the start of the film, where the two thugs are driving together towards Minneapolis. The next thing I know, the end credits are rolling. I obviously own the film, but subconsciously just continued watching it on TV. The truth is every scene is my favourite scene. It is far and away my favourite movie of all time (in case you haven’t picked up on that yet).

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One thought on “1. “Fargo” – dir. Joel (and Ethan) Coen, 1996

  1. Fargo was one of the first “great” movies I saw too, and it has stuck with me as well. Like you, I almost couldn’t understand how good a movie it was the first time I saw it, but watching it again definitely makes it clear that it’s a masterpiece (although I still think No Country for Old Men is the best Coen brothers film). And even though it’s hard to take the Minnesota accents seriously, it’s not their fault – they just don’t sound as cool as the Texas accents in so many other Coen brothers films.

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