With an upcoming TV series spin-off, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit the Coen brothers’ breakthrough film, the one which catapulted them from independent arthouse darlings into an unexpected mainstream. Made in the wake of the financial disaster that was The Hudsucker Proxy (the masterful Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink were similarly undeserving commercial flops, which meant they were working off the back of three box office failures in a row), Fargo became an unprecedented success, turning the brothers overnight from risky investments into solid money-makers (every film they’ve made since has turned a profit, with the exception of the black-and-white The Man Who Wasn’t There). Away from all the finances, it also seemed like a creative tipping point for them as well – it was their best film at the time, and arguably still is – mainly due to having a bit more heart and humanity (principally conveyed through Frances McDormand’s warm presence) than their earlier work. It also saw them recognised for the first time by the Academy Awards, who had somehow ignored the likes of Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, with both Coens winning an Oscar for their script and McDormand (Joel’s wife) deservedly recognised for her work.

Much has been made of the opening title card, claiming that “this is a true story”. This is a lie. You’re allowed to do that – in fact you can say pretty much anything you want about a film’s apparent veracity as long as you have the “all persons fictitious” disclaimer at the end of the credits (which Fargo does). The reasons behind this are hard to fully explain, but they make total sense once you’re used to the Coens’ particular sense of mischievous humour. Although there are elements of the story that have cropped up in anecdotes and real-life crime cases, the most telling comment about it comes from Joel himself: “If an audience believes that something’s based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept”. In other words, they’re just fucking with us. But it highlights an interesting point that we should probably take every single film we see with a pinch of salt. Ultimately, this peculiar detail just fits in with what is basically a twisted kind of satire of the true crime genre, just as all the Coens’ films are kind of satirical in their own way.

Back to the film itself, and there’s an embarrassment of riches to admire. Roger Deakins does a stunning job of taking a homely, down-to-earth location and making it look stunningly cinematic, with the vast expanses of snow-covered fields looking like some kind of earthly limbo, and Carter Burwell’s haunting, dread-laced score evokes a unique, dark atmosphere, beautifully at odds with the cheery disposition of its locals. Frances McDormand’s pregnant police chief is one of cinema’s most endearing and memorable characters, smart and capable and with a heart of gold, effortlessly getting the audience on her side. William H Macy also handles what could have been a one-note role with real pathos and sympathy, and the usual well-written supporting cast of Coen oddballs round out a believable, almost tangible town. And as a calling card for the Coens’ talents, both as writers and directors and editors, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything in American independent film to match it.

The Coen brothers are unique artists, and amongst the most accomplished living filmmakers in the world10
You can pretty much educate yourself about the language of cinema just by watching all of their movies10
They're also really good writers, and editors9
Frances McDormand, William H Macy, Roger Deakins10
That sing-song accent is kind of annoying, I guess7
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
Bechdel Test Failures
  • There are only two named female characters, and they never speak to each other
9Overall Score

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