Big Screen Streaming: Fargo

Big Screen Streaming: Fargo

-Film Reviewed by Roger Market

Despite the charming, feel-good narrative of A Christmas Story, the idea of watching the annual 24-hour marathon is liable to give even the most enthusiastic Santa lovers a mild coronary. Or maybe—gasp—you simply don’t celebrate Christmas. While Fargo (1996) evokes the feeling of small-town winter, it’s not a holiday story by any stretch of the imagination. That’s may be exactly what many folks need right about now.

The title sequence begins immediately, played over an imperfectly white background. Black vertical lines fade into view on the right side of the screen, like a bar code, and then a bird flaps its way to the center. Those vertical lines are telephone poles. A car’s headlights move toward the viewer for an eternity. Next, a haunting instrumental theme rises as the car pulls nearer. The vehicle trudges through snow, eventually cresting a hill near the viewer, where it becomes clear that the car is, in fact, pulling another car on a trailer. The caravan is not driving slowly, either, but rather speeding through the slush. Both cars pass by, and the word Fargo appears on the screen in small, bold, capital letters.

By the time Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) pulls into the parking lot of a Minnesota bar called the King of Clubs, the sun has long set. The winter wonderland has given way to something much darker. Inside, Jerry spots the two men he seeks: Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare). Carl immediately calls Jerry out for being an hour late. Gaear remains silent.

“Oh, I’m sure sorry,” Jerry says with the utmost sincerity. “Shep told me 8:30. It was a mix-up, I guess.”

In less than four minutes, writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen (a.k.a. the Coen brothers) have set up a comedic thriller whose tone is consistent, but slippery. The viewer may often wonder if laughing is the appropriate response or if he or she should lie in wait for something tragic to happen. Then Carl speaks. “You want your own wife kidnapped?” he says, clarifying the deal they’re pursuing and finally establishing the film’s genre. Jerry doesn’t hesitate. “Ya,” he says in an exaggerated Minnesota accent that will have the viewer laughing guiltily throughout the film. He’s offering them half of the $80,000 ransom that he plans to get from his father-in-law. They accept, trusting him to procure the money.

When the kidnapping goes wrong, and several people end up dead, pregnant police chief, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), takes up the case. She leads a supporting cast of cops, witnesses, hookers, and awkward high school friends in an effort to apprehend the culprit. Each person, including Marge herself, carries that trademark Minnesota lilt. More striking than the accent, however, is the effortless sincerity of the dialogue. Absurd as it is at times, the simple, sugary conversation in Fargo feels authentic coming from this cast.

Another of Fargo’s strengths is the layered portrayal of a clever police chief who looks as though she could go into labor at any moment. Frances McDormand is a delight as Marge. Demure and personable when she needs to be, she approaches her job with all the seriousness of a capable, assertive leader. Her brief interactions with William H. Macy’s troubled Jerry bring the film’s disparate fibers together for a cohesive, suspenseful, and darkly hilarious story.

While Marge works the case, Jerry runs around trying to keep everything from falling apart. His attempt to siphon a million dollars from his rich father-in-law and then pay the “faux” kidnappers a paltry sum for their trouble has already gone south. When the father-in-law, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell), demands that he deliver the ransom instead, Jerry’s situation worsens. Without Jerry as the ransom mediator, there’s no telling what will happen to the money, which amounts to a whole lot more than the $40,000 he offered Carl in the King of Clubs. His scam is ruined.

Anything can go wrong, and the final act doesn’t miss a beat creating chaos. This leads to a gruesome but funny showdown between Gaear and Marge, as well as between Jerry and the local police. “There’s more to life than a little money, you know?” Marge says at one point. “Don’t ya know that? And here ya are. And it’s a beautiful day. Well…I just don’t understand it.” Marge’s simple observation effectively shames Jerry and his associates for their greed and disastrous actions. In that respect, maybe there’s a holiday message buried in Fargo after all. Exasperated viewers can rest easy, however, knowing that there’s nary a reindeer or sleigh—or animated singing snow queen—in sight.

Fargo is available to watch on Netflix streaming and serves as a fresh option in a sea of mostly sanitary seasonal fare. If you like what you see, check out the critically acclaimed TV version of Fargo, whose first season aired in early 2014. With the winter lull in TV programming, now’s a good time to get caught up before the second season premieres, fall 2015.


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