Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #118
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand and Steve Buscemi
I watched Fargo this morning. It wasn't because I needed to refresh my memory of it before I blogged about it – I've seen it easily twenty times, more than any other movie save a couple. I just wanted to be reminded of why I love this medium called motion pictures, and perhaps no other film reminds me more than this one. Any attempt to say how great I think it is will only come off as hyperbole, and a comprehensive list of the reasons why I like it would take up more space than my bandwidth can handle. Fargo is simultaneously simple and complex, and it lends itself to a wildly fun, unthinking first watch and a thought-provoking, analysis-driven twentieth viewing with equal dexterity. Every actor, from leads Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, and William H. Macy down to one-scene performers like the impeccable Steve Park (whose one scene happens to be my favorite in the history of cinema), gives a career performance, and the original screenplay from the Coen Brothers may be their best ever. Fargo is not my favorite movie of all time – though dedicated readers of this blog can by now deduce what is – but it's damn close.
Unlike some movies with this much greatness in the dialogue, cinematography, character development, acting, and directing departments, Fargo doesn't sacrifice an ounce of great story. The "homespun murder story" promised in the tagline is delivered, but it's far from the only thing going on in this script. Every character, right down to the aforementioned Steve Park's one-scene wonder Mike Yanagita, has a fully developed arc that ties into every other character's arc without being gimmicky. The film's narrative is built around a kidnapping, a triple homicide and a police investigation, but judging by its tone, you'd never know it. If Dirty Harry turned the crime genre on its head by throwing out the first big renegade cop, then Fargo turned it on its ass. Marge Gunderson (McDormand) is unlike any other movie cop in history. She's seven months pregnant, friendly, unassuming, and incredibly goddamn good at her job, if a little naïve. Marge (and, interestingly, her husband and the rest of her police department) is the only wholly likable character in the movie, and the Coens do a great job of keeping the film enjoyable when she's not in it against some tall odds – she isn't even introduced until thirty minutes into Fargo's 98-minute duration. McDormand earned her Best Actress statuette here beyond any shadow of a doubt.
Since I've mentioned it twice already, I would be remiss if I didn't talk about why the Mike Yanagita scene is my favorite movie scene of all time. For a Fargo first-timer, it undoubtedly seems completely random and unnecessary. It's just an amusing scene in which an Asian gentleman very awkwardly hits on Marge in a Radisson bar. He hugs Marge for a little too long, tries to sit next to her on a tiny booth, cries about his wife's death, and tells her she's "such a super lady." It's that kind of painfully awkward funny that shows like The Office would pick up on several years later, and in that respect, it works brilliantly. Later in the film, however, we find out that Mike Yanagita was never married to the woman he claims died of leukemia, and that he actually had "psychiatric problems" and had moved back in with his parents. Marge freezes when she learns this, completely surprised by this news given what happened earlier. And that's it, right? Far from it. After learning the truth about Mike, Marge returns to the dealership where Jerry Lundegaard (Macy) works to question him some more about the missing car. She gets firm with him, and he flees the interview. She decides to follow up on a lead about the suspects in the murder going up to the lake, and stumbles upon the famous Buscemi-in-the-wood-chipper scene. How does this relate to Mike Yanagita? A studied viewing of the film reveals that until her revelation about Mike, Marge was mostly naïve, believed people were generally honest, and didn't read too much into people who might have been concealing truth. She was a good police officer, no doubt, but her methods didn't pry too much. Once the Mike Yanagita bombshell was dropped, she started to question whether anyone was honest, which sent her back to Jerry's and caused her to check out the lake. None of this is stated; it's all subtext. So the scene with Mike at the bar is not only an awkward, funny, and incredibly well-acted scene (just look at McDormand and Park's faces next time you watch it!), it is also the catalyst for the rest of the film, and its thrilling climax. It's brilliant, and there's nothing else I can really say about it.
The Good: Most everything. It's probably my second-favorite movie of all time.
The Bad: Nada.
The Skinny: I'd have it at #2, duh.