Film Review: “Fargo”

It is rare to see the mundane meet the thrilling and the sweet meet the sinister in a way that is as satisfactorily uncomfortable, darkly humorous and oddly heartwarming as is “Fargo.” The film thrives off of the contrasts it creates. In typical Coen brothers style, the directors play with the limits of unconventionality: placing kidnapping plots and gruesome murders within the context of the quiet, close-knit Midwest; exaggerating the “Minnesota nice” mannerisms of some characters while similarly inflating the menacing natures of others. “Fargo,” as a result of these offbeat pairings, is at once wonderfully familiar and peculiar.

Beginning with one of what will be many shots of vast, white and snowy landscape, the film feels oddly dreamlike and unreal from its start. Yet, if you have been to Minnesota or North Dakota in the winter, you will no doubt recognize the whitewashed scene the movie greets with. So much of “Fargo”—from its ever-frozen scenery, to its almost cartoonish violence, to the sheer singularity of each of its characters—is surreally absurd, yet in many ways ordinary; the Coens blow reality up to the point of comedy—yet a comedy still very much rooted in reality.

Protagonist Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) in a way, embodies this dichotomy; she feels very much like a real human being, but she is also a sort of caricature of the Midwestern attitude—tough and sweet, the pregnant police chief, only taking a break from chasing criminals to eat some Arby’s or sometimes to puke. During the film’s gory climax, she remains relatively unfazed and innocently perplexed about why somebody would want to do so much harm, on such a “beautiful day” for just a little bit of money.

While some believe the juxtaposition of dark violence and light humor takes away from the emotional weight of “Fargo”—and of the Coen brothers’ films in general—in this case I believe it serves to strengthen both aspects, dark and light. If the movie were not so lighthearted in its characterization of the northern Midwest and its inhabitants, the horrifying events that take place there would not be so jarring. If the movie was a simple comedy about a quirky town and its quirky citizens, these familiar quirks would not be as valuable, resulting in the film seeming inauthentic and shallow overall.

The homey details are what save the movie from absurdity and give it meaning—it is not all about the winding, convoluted plot or the kidnapping or the murder, although these are what drive the film forward and keep us engaged. Like Marge says, it is about the little, everyday details: the “beautiful day” in Brainerd—which is actually freezing cold and snowy—and coming home to her husband’s “terrific” news that his art is being put on the local three-cent stamp. We would not feel as comfortable watching this final, typical yet heartwarming conversation between the Gundersons if it hadn’t been for the thoroughly uncomfortable events of the prior hour and a half. Like them, we end up reveling in the mundane and the familiar—feeling that it is a well-deserved break—and knowing that the delightfully plain resolution would not be nearly so sweet without “Fargo’s” unique pairing of the disturbed and the endearing.