‘Fargo’ at 25: The Coens’ Greatest Cinematic Achievement
Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargowas released in theaters in March of 1996, 25 years ago this month. It’s a film with many superlatives: It’s the best Coen brothers movie, the best Minnesota movie and, in my opinion, the best American film of the 1990s.
The film was the first the Coens made in their home state (and mine) of Minnesota, and it set up a fascinating dynamic: All of the characters in the movie spoke in homespun accents, full of “ya knows” and “you betchas,” but it was in the service of a plot full of violence, murder, and betrayal. It’s a dynamic that would be revisited two decades later, following the killing of George Floyd, also in Minnesota.
Not only that, but the film really captured the existential despair of a Minnesota winter:
Like many Coen films, Fargo concerned a kidnapping, botched ransoms, and inexperienced criminals being in way over their heads. The film follows Jerry Lundegard (William H. Macy), a Twin Cities car dealer who hires a pair of criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, in order to extract a ransom from his rich father-in-law (Harve Presnell).
The plan, of course, goes spectacularly awry, and the person tasked with investigating the crimes is Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), the pregnant police chief from “up Brainerd” who takes on the mission of “investigating some malfeasance.”
What’s so great about Fargo? It combines a relatively straightforward crime plot with the sort of character and atmosphere that had never been seen in the movie before. It’s an extremely well-acted movie, led by McDormand, who won the first of her two Oscars for the film. And it represented a big leap for a long list of actors who participated, including Macy, Buscemi, and Stormare.
And yes, it made wood chippers never look the same again:
Fargo has had quite a legacy that’s built up over 25 years. It won two Oscars, for the screenplay and for McDormand, and the years have been much kinder to it than to the movie it lost the Best Picture Oscar to, The English Patient. And for a contemporary movie set in the 1990s, it’s not appreciably dated in any way.
Fargo spawned a TV series of the same name, started in 2014. It shouldn’t have worked, but somehow did. The show, in which the Coens are not involved, was created by Noah Hawley, and operates as an anthology, with nearly no common characters across its four seasons. It’s produced more in the style of the Fargo movie, with frequent homages to that and the other Coen movies, with a loose continuity that fits in with that of the movie. The series also has a tradition of great character names, like Nikki Swango, Gus Grimsley, Gloria Burgle, Ray Stussy, and Josto Fadda.
Then there was the death by suicide, in 2001, of a Japanese woman named Takako Konishi. It was reported at the time that she had traveled to Minnesota to try to locate the missing money from Fargo. That didn’t turn out to be true, although it did inspire a 2014 movie called Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.
I grew up in Minnesota and graduated from high school in 1996, a few months after Fargo was released, and for many years afterward Fargo was one of the first things that came up whenever I met people.
The Coens have done a lot of great work in their time, but Fargo remains the best film they’ve ever made.