Fargo is one of the best crime movie ever made, and is deservedly on AFI’s list of the top 100 films (no. 84). It represents the Coen brothers’ critical foray into flesh-and-blood characters and a cinematic theme eclipsing their technical skills.
Fargo is about American crime. The ridiculous crime you read about in newspaper blurbs. The Coens offer a rich explanation behind “Man Found Shredded in Wood Chipper” or “Couple Carves Fetus out of Young Woman.” But while the story is mythic (aided by Carter Burwell’s memorably dark score), the characters are not mythical. William H. Macy is a scared, little man who wants to make his mark, gets in hock, and cooks up a scheme to have his wife kidnapped and ransomed. The kidnappers (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) are ignorant and brutal. That they will resort to violence is never in doubt. They are criminal through-and-through, of the type depicted in In Cold Blood or One False Move or, for a truer example, in occasional “Real Live Video” shows. The killers in Fargo actually remind me of a true video I saw of a carjacking, which was filmed from inside the car. The “carjackee” is an undercover cop, and he tries to calm the carjacker down to give the police time to swoop in. The carjacker is a vicious animal, constantly pointing his gun at the undercover cop, threatening to blow his head off. Up until the moment the police swoop in and disarm him, the criminal is a beast. Immediately upon being disarmed, however, the carjacker is all, “It’s cool, it’s cool.” He’s smiling. He’s reasonable. He’s a completely different person, almost in a prep mode to appear more deferential and misunderstood.
In Fargo, the Coens show something that is rare in crime films – they show the killers in everyday, mundane life, as driving companions, as drinking buddies, as guys picking up chicks at a bar, or holed up watching TV and waiting for the money. Then, after we laugh at or with them and become more comfortable with their demonstrated incompetence, the directors show us their vicious sociopathy. Quickly, their first instinct when pressures is to kill, and they do it without remorse or reflection. They eventually turn on each other, and it is Macy who let loose these furies through his mind-numbing weakness.
Their foil is Frances McDormand, a pregnant sheriff who has a simple uncomplicated sensitivity and a very clear, tough line of right-and-wrong. She still doesn’t understand Stormare, who, at the end, sits forlornly in her squad car: “There’s more to life than a little money, ya know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are. And it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.” That’s enough for her. What McDormand exudes, unlike the tortured Sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones in the Coens’ bookend film No Country for Old Men, is that she really doesn’t care to understand it. She’s not interested in giving a Stormare the time to think about his motives, his beginnings, his modified persona as a captured animal. He’s an animal, she knows it, and she moves on.
In this way, I also think Fargo is a uniquely American movie, a window to a culture that champions individual rights yet accepts the death penalty. That’s nifty work, one that keeps you interested in the criminals, but does not elicit anything more than the most base sympathies (though it is hard not to feel somewhat bad for Buscemi as he tries to hide money with a bullet in his face).