Frances McDormand is unquestionably one of the greatest actresses working today. Her recent Best Actress Oscar win for Nomadland (2020) has all but confirmed this notion, as she managed to top some of the stiffest competition the category has seen in years. Her performance in Chloe Zhao’s neo-western is the latest to deftly demonstrate her commanding ability to defy the preconceived expectations of women, especially women her age. There are strong hints of feminism to many of the characters she brings to life, and never in a way that feels overbearing. Moreover, despite the fact that many of her characters are inherently fictional, there is an even greater degree of truthful candor to them, largely due to how delicately she interprets them. Her characters don’t just break stereotypes so much as they also do so in a way that feels entirely natural and unquestionable. McDormand’s three Academy Award-winning performances are the most evident proof of how she is able to convince us she’s just a person going about her day, all but making us forget about her celebrity status. However, in a long and storied career, her most productive effort in this regard is that in her first winning turn in Fargo (1996).
Since the rise of the independent film movement of the 1980s and ‘90s, few combinations have been as effective as McDormand and her husband, Joel Coen. As filmmakers, Coen and his brother, Ethan, are practically a genre unto themselves. A Coen brothers movie is one with its own set of rules, its own understanding of human nature. A Coen brothers movie will not hesitate to subvert audience expectations and find the levity in even the most perilous of situations — a grisly murder could have just occurred and you’d still be hard pressed not to let out a slight chuckle. A Coen brothers movie peels back layers to reveal the morose underbelly of an idyllic landscape, a kind of disturbing realization that can only be found when you stop and take a look around. A Coen brothers movie can be damn near anything it wants to be, cause a whole lot can happen in the middle of nowhere. And no other entry in their distinguished oeuvre embodies such a sentiment better than the black comedic crime thrills of Fargo. It stands to reason as to why Coen’s perennial leading woman feels like such a natural choice as the headliner of the movie.
Playing upon the conceit that what is to unfold is based on true events, Fargo follows car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard — whose greedy, but dim-witted nature is perfectly embodied by William H. Macy — as he hires two equally greedy and dim-witted thugs to kidnap his own wife in order to extort a hefty ransom from his father-in-law and settle his many debts. And, of course, as is the case with many a Coen-penned story, pretty much everything that could possibly go wrong does exactly that, which leads to the arrival of pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson as she relentlessly works to track down the inept criminals disturbing the peace in the quiet, snow-covered Minnesotan landscape.
To understand a film like Fargo is to understand everything that it’s not and everything it should never be labeled as. It is by no means typical in terms of its narrative structure, character development, or general outlook on the human experience. At first glance, it might be only too easy to accuse the film of being underwhelming, especially in comparison to the rave reviews and many accolades it accumulated upon its release. But that’s kind of the idea. It’s a movie that’s worth multiple watches, and leaves your eyes glued to the screen each and every time, because its story exposes the various anachronisms of suburban life that couldn’t possibly be revealed in a single glance. At a time when big-budget studios were in the throes of male-centered action movies, senseless comedies, and dark thrillers, a little independent film with a strong female presence proved that you can combine the best elements of all these genres and touch upon something more profoundly human than anything that came before.
For all of its outlandish genre-mashing, Fargo more often than not feels like a legitimately real story with characters you might meet on the street or in a dingy bar. Such is the strength of the Coen brothers’ gift of gab and their keen understanding of what audiences presume to know about the movies and their relationship to society. Audiences often assume that a character’s pregnancy has significant weight on the plot and would make her weaker in their eyes. Audiences often assume that criminals are always one step ahead and know what makes their victims tick. Audiences often assume that well-to-do suburban husbands with a loving wife and son would not descend into a world of shady embezzlement and arranged kidnappings. And audiences would assume that a movie called Fargo would have more than just one scene set in North Dakota. But that’s not how this movie works, and, more importantly, that’s not how life works. Life is measured in the small problems that are made all the more outrageous by the folly of incompetent men whose attempts at rectification simply create more problems. Fargo affirms this notion by purposefully misdirecting the viewer and reminding us all that life, in essence, is but one giant mess.
But in that mess lies the beacon of order and justice that is Frances McDormand’s Marge. And a seasoned thespian such as McDormand knows when to take Marge well beyond a mere mold-breaker. More than being just a female investigator in a genre overpopulated by masculine smooth talkers, she completely lays into the “Minnesota nice” of her character that couldn’t be a more welcome departure from the likes of Sam Spade, Jake Gittes, and even the erratic Ace Ventura. McDormand draws attention to herself and the culture she represents in order to hide her best dramatic nuances, completing the illusion with her classic sardonic wit at the best moments possible. She puts up the front of having a deep understanding of the town she protects and the people in it, making Marge an officer with as much passion for her job as her husband’s success as an artist. Not that her central case isn’t important, but it’s not something that comes to define her by the end of the film, yet another ingenious misdirection on the part of the Coens.
Misperception is a fickle game, but it’s a game that McDormand plays well, especially under the direction of the Coens. Fargo, if nothing else, is all about misperception and dichotomy. The dichotomy of appearance and reality. That of an idyllic town and the horrific crimes beset upon it. That of a selfless woman with a loving husband and everything she could ever want in life, and a selfish man whose dissatisfaction with life causes him to forsake what he already has. That of the woman’s fragile body and the cunning intellect that rests firmly in her brain. That of Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare as a short-statured, over-talkative thug and his much taller accomplice who barely says a word, respectively. In the case of the Coen brothers, Fargo is a perfect demonstration of the kinds of dichotomies they effectively create as storytellers. The Coens flourish because of their ability to write pitch-perfect dialogue, yet craft films in which the most suspenseful moments have little to no dialogue at all. They make films with a kind of realism grounded in the simple fact that nothing about it really makes sense.
Because nothing truly makes sense, and because many events in the film seem to occur at random, every scene brings something to the narrative. The image of a person’s leg being shoved into a woodchipper is actually a brilliant exercise in uncomfortable, but well-earned humor. The awkward sequence of Jerry trying to idiotically cover up his embezzlement to the car dealership has a surprisingly natural feel to it. Even the cringeworthy scene in which Marge, taking a short break from her case, is unsuccessfully wooed by her desperate, repressed high school friend is, in itself, a major turning point in a plot full of them from beginning to end. As the Coen brothers mine their home state of Minnesota, a single territory in a frequently overlooked section of the country, and the desolate, white landscape is spattered with red, their quirky disposition is rewarded in almost every way. Fargo presents us with an acknowledgement of the worst and best of humankind that is, first and foremost, true to who the Coens and Frances McDormand are as not just storytellers, but Midwesterners as well. More than anything, they appreciate the simple things in life and encourage us to do the same. In their eyes, not to do so is to lose.
It’s easy to dismiss Joel and Ethan Coen for writing from the world they build from outside the box of overarching Hollywood stereotypes, but their inability to compromise their collective vision is precisely what makes the simplistic nature of their world-building and characters so brilliant. It’s also what led Fargo to collect seven Oscar nominations and two wins for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress for Frances McDormand’s brilliant portrayal of the sincere, motherly detective whose wholesome demeanor seizes the day over the selfishness, corruption and evil of the men who don’t comprehend that there’s more to life than a little money. Next to their Best Picture-winning No Country for Old Men, you would be hard pressed to find a film that remains as true to their stripped-down approach to storytelling, and as wholly accessible, as the film that let the world know they were serious talents, and that McDormand was a star, plain and simple. After 25 years, Fargo is also one of their only films to remind us, in the most honest way possible, of the hope that is sure to be found once the gloomy winter ends and the blood-stained snow has melted. In that way, it just might be a true story after all.