In the 1990s, violent films with dashes of comedy were very much in vogue. While Quentin Tarantino is widely seen as the preeminent purveyor of this formal juxtaposition, it’s arguably Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo that most skillfully balances the shifting between, and integration of, equal parts bloodshed and laugh-out-loud hilarity. The film – “based on a true story” (not really) – is immediately and frequently amusing, while it also maintains tension to the very end. The picture opens with a blindingly white, snow-enveloped tundra that is North Dakota; a vehicle slowly comes into view like a character emerging in the Arabian Desert. First, there’s the awkwardly devious, yet largely good-natured, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), clearly and constantly in over his head when dealing with goons Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) or when trying to sell the benefits of TruCoat protection. And then, more than 30 minutes in, there’s pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, quite rightly winning an Oscar), waddling along, solving crimes, stealing the show. But on the brutal other hand, there’s comedic kidnapping, geysers of blood, and bodies in wood chippers. Still, in the brothers’ body of work, full of unusually quirky characters, these folks are among the most authentic … or at least most authentically quirky. Maybe it’s because of the terrific performances across the board, maybe it’s the Coens’ personal identification with the region and its regional eccentricities (they were born in Minneapolis — how else could they nail the “yas,” “you betchas,” and prowlers needing jumps?). Either way, there are moments of genuine down-to-earth heart here that don’t always surface in the rest of their films. It might be a murder story, but at least it’s a “homespun” murder story. With the exception of the professional and proficient Marge (she knows what DLR means on license plates; her partner, Lou, not so much), the otherwise incompetent characters can be quite dastardly. Why then do we enjoy watching them so much, and why is it often so funny when they do these dastardly things? Fargo is also endlessly quotable (IMDb’s “Quotes” page shows why dialogue alone warranted the Academy Award for original screenplay). Ultimately, Fargo is profoundly and pleasantly engaging in its depiction of simple people caught up in not-so-simple schemes. It’s all this, and here they are, and it’s a beautiful day.

This piece was part of Ranking the Films of The Coen Bros. on Sound on Sight

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