This is an installment for a series on this blog where Joe Brown, Sports Editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, and I have a back-and-forth review of a movie. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, I picked the 1996 Coen Brothers film “Fargo.”
The Movie: “Fargo” (1996)
Starring: William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen (uncredited)
Plot Summary: (From Hulu) A man deeply in debt hires two inept crooks to kidnap his wife and split the ransom money. The deal goes bad when the crooks kill a highway patrolman and two hapless bystanders.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 94 percent
Froemming: After the baffling experience of watching “Urban Cowboy” last week, and with “Fuller House” as our mountain to climb in a few weeks, I chose a palate-cleansing experience of a film that only the Coen Brothers can offer. And since I will have to wait until 2017 to get my “Fargo” fix, I chose the Coens’ 1996 classic film of the same name that started it all.
I really wanted to revisit this film ever since the TV series first aired, because “Fargo” really is the spark that got me to start blogging more, which I have enjoyed immensely. So, in a sense, if it wasn’t for “Fargo” in a long con sort of way, there really wouldn’t be a JOE-DOWN.
So Brown, what are your thoughts on “Fargo” now that you have had time to sort of divorce it from the TV series, which you have told me sort of sat differently with you when you re-watched this right after the first season wrapped?
Brown: Yeah, for the longest time I didn’t feel like a proper Minnesotan because I never sat down and watched “Fargo” until a little over a year ago. The problem was, I really got into season one of the TV series (thanks in no small way to your blog) and really didn’t love the movie. Obviously you get more invested into a TV series more than a 90-minute movie.
But now that there has been some breathing room between TV and movie, I enjoyed “Fargo” much, much more. And a huge part of that is how the tension really gets ratcheted up throughout the entire thing, starting with the claim that “This is a true story” (it’s not). And from there, we get some good ol’ Coen Brothers character insanity.
Froemming: I agree, having a little buffer between watching the show and the film sure helped me sort of distance myself from the two worlds, even though they are shared worlds (the film and show are connected). But I have reviewed the hell out of the show, so let’s get into the film.
The film is about a man named Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), who owes money to some mystery people that are never named for unknown reasons (my guess, probably gambling). So, he hires two crooks to fake a kidnapping of his wife, Jean, and to have his well to do father-in-law pay the ransom. Since this is a Coen Brothers film, and they are perfect at crafting misunderstandings, everything goes awry for Jerry.
Brown: I have to say, for a split second, when the movie opens and you see Jerry walk into the bar to meet the two criminals, I heard honky-tonk music and I thought we had been dropped into some strange hell where we were watching “Urban Cowboy” again.
Anyhow, our two antagonists apparently named Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) agree to the kidnapping ruse. And from that moment, you get two completely different bad guys, with Buscemi playing the weasley fast-talking smartass and Stormare as the silent, twisted psychopath that only gets more deranged as the movie goes on. If you need the archetype of Anton Chigurh from “No Country For Old Men,” here you are.
Froemming: That kind of character Gaear portrays is present in a lot of Coen Brothers films. From the motorcycle guy, Leonard Smalls, in “Raising Arizona” and Private Detective Loren Visser in “Blood Simple,” this is a type of character that the Coens are pretty good at inserting into their films.
Brown: What the Coen Brothers are also good at is driving me insane at how Minnesotan everything is. Everyone’s watching Gophers/Badgers hockey (which won’t happen right now because Minnesota is awful). Many, many characters are terribly passive-aggressive. And the accents… dear God, the accents.
Froemming: The accents are really pronounced in this film, but given the Coens are from Minnesota, they really hit a nerve with that and it wasn’t like they were making it up from whole cloth. I remember when the film came out, there were tutorials on how to speak Minnesotan. It was insane.
Brown: Growing up around the Twin Cities (Fridley represent), the accents are nowhere near as pronounced as they are compared to northern Minnesota. I once had a co-worker in Red Wing that grew up near Grand Forks and would pronounce milk like “Melk.” It was adorably Norwegian. But the accents are very grating in this movie, which for someone who lives in the state it did turn me off on this movie for a long time. I’ll say it: I resented “Fargo” for a long time because all my relatives are from out of state and thought we all sounded like this. Jerks.
Froemming: Well, I do have some of the accent, I’ll admit. I never thought I had it, until one fateful day while I was working at the Daily Globe in Worthington, I was forced to work with a jerk from Chicago named Chris Murphy, who mocked my accent in his own rancid, Jim Belushi-esque Illinois dialect. Ever since I have tried to kick the goofy accent.
Brown: Funny enough, I also deal with Murphy constantly during state sporting events and he was surprised I don’t have a Minnesota accent (the bulk of my family is from Kansas). That comment was perhaps the most flattering compliment I’ve ever been given.
Froemming: But back to the film, so Jerry is pretty much in way over his head at pretty much everything in his life. He can’t even sell a car without pissing his customers off (that damn TruCoat).
His father-in-law has no respect for him, and we learn pretty quickly that Jerry has a horribly misguided scheme in stealing a car for Carl and Gaear to commit the crime with. The whole film shows that Jerry is not very good at a lot things, especially staging a fake crime that turns into a very real crime.
Brown: Hey now, the TruCoat may be a ripoff, but he sells it. Why? Because he’s selling cars to Minnesotans. They scream at him for charging an extra $100, but they still buy it anyways because all of us avoid confrontation.
When Carl and Gaear go and commit the kidnapping, one thing that bothered me was Jean’s complete lack of situational awareness. She’s watching TV and no more than three feet away from the TV, here comes a masked man with a crowbar IN BROAD DAYLIGHT to break into her house. And, she doesn’t see it. Either the TV show she was watching was more enthralling than “Breaking Bad” or she is straight-up blind.
All that said, after the kidnapping, the two criminals are pulled over and that’s when you see the true psychosis of Gaear, to the point that even Carl is downright frightened of him.
Froemming: And it is implied that Carl has never worked with Gaear before, so I did sense his shock when his partner just up and shoots the cop. And back to the kidnapping, I agree that Jean should have noticed the masked men. But I also felt horrible for her when the kidnapping occurs, because while it is a funny scene, you also get the sense of panic from her. Poor Jean, I felt horrible for her there.
Brown: I felt horrible for her until she lunged out of the shower and tried to attack Gaear. He’s looking for some medicine and she has to try to be a hero. But, she gets wrapped up in the shower curtain and falls down some stairs for her troubles. I know slasher movies were new when this movie takes place, but don’t ever try to be a hero.
Froemming: So the officer in Brainerd is shot and killed, and now we are introduced to Marge Gunderson, who is my favorite character in the film. A smart cop with those Minnesotan quirks, it was just a wonderful performance by Frances McDormand. Though I couldn’t help but notice now how much Molly from the show borrowed from Marge, right down to the pregnancy.
Brown: Wait, Brainerd and Bemidji aren’t the same place, Froemming?
Froemming: No, Bemidji is the true home of Paul Bunyan.
Brown: No, you’re right. Bemidji and Brainerd are different, and Bemidji’s Paul Bunyan doesn’t haunt my nights like the one that Brainerd has portrayed in this movie.
And you’re also right with McDormand as Marge, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the kind, observant cop. Though in a way, I feel terrible for her because her co-workers are inconsiderate dopes. When she arrives at the murder scene with the highway cop and the couple who saw the aftermath, she’s the one doing all the work. A clearly-showing pregnant cop figures out what happens and wades through the ankle-high snow and cold while her fellow cop holds their hot cocoa and says “Yah” a lot. Chivalry is dead because of people like him.
Froemming: Well, at least Marge’s husband Norm (played by John Carroll Lynch) is proof that chivalry is not dead. He makes her breakfast and brings her Arby’s to work. I really liked the relationship between these two, even though those scenes are brief we still get a good sense of where these two people are with one another.
Brown: Norm’s choice in lunch would make David Puddy proud.
As Marge is putting the pieces together about the murder, things just keep getting complicated for Jerry’s plan, and really, there’s a sick sense of joy to see this character get his comeuppance throughout the movie. I’m rewinding a little bit here, but this is a man who is practicing his sob story about his wife getting kidnapped before calling his father-in-law.
Froemming: And after the triple homicide in Brainerd, things go from bad to worse, which has Marge heading down to the Twin Cities. The pressure is on, especially when she visits Shep Proudfoot, who put Jerry in contact with the two crooks (after she interrogates two hookers, who describe Carl as “funny lookin’”).
Brown: Well, Carl is played by Steve Buscemi… so that’s a rather apt description. I love the man and his work, but we have to call a spade a spade.
Froemming: And while in Minneapolis, Marge reconnects with a high-school friend, who is down and out and tells her quite a yarn about his wife dying, which turns out to be completely false, and leads her to start to question trusting what people say to her.
Brown: The high school friend telling that fabrication is just a small part of an overarching theme throughout the entire movie: Pride comes before the fall. Once put into a position where he knows Marge is unavailable, the high school friend has to make up some lie instead of just realizing nothing will come of their rendezvous. And Jerry’s entire fall is because he can’t swallow his pride and ask to borrow money from his father-in-law. He needs to create an elaborate hoax to get what he needs so he doesn’t lose face. I think it’s too broad to say he got what was coming to him, but you certainly don’t feel bad for Jerry because he’s at fault for everything that happens to him.
Froemming: I want to backtrack here and also bring up that Jerry also tries to get a loan from his father-in-law for a lot in Wayzata. Though Jerry doesn’t seem to know the difference between a loan and a business deal, and he tries to kind of con his father-in-law with this, as well as putting forth the “fake” kidnapping that becomes a real kidnapping.
Brown: Just so we’re clear from that sequence with Jerry’s sales pitch to his father-in-law and Stan Grossman, they’re not a bank?
Froemming: I really enjoyed watching Jerry squirm in this scene. Again, he is not very good at this sort of thing. Like you said about pride, he doesn’t even consider the finder’s fee, he wants the money, the lot and the profit, and he won’t consider anything else.
Brown: And the icing (no pun intended) in that scene is watching Jerry panic in his car, then have to go outside and scrape his windshield. If you’ve lived in the midwest for any extended period of time, this scene has played out in your life.
Froemming: OK, so Marge visits Shep, and puts some paranoia in him (violating his parole). Which leads to Shep pretty much knocking the snot out of Carl in a hotel room, because Carl and Gaear have screwed things up and has lead the law back to Shep. Also, how is Carl tooling around the metro area in a car related to a triple homicide and not get pulled over?
Brown: I’m sure it was like Jerry’s faxes to the person looking for VIN numbers on vehicles he’s trying to get expensed: The numbers were probably faded. Which begs the question: Why are fax machines STILL a thing? I’ll let you get back to the movie before I get sidetracked again.
Froemming: OK, so now Carl is pissed at Jerry and wants the whole ransom for himself. This is when the fake kidnapping becomes all too real, and again, this is all Jerry’s fault. There is no bargaining with criminals when they hold all the cards. Jerry’s father-in-law wants to make the drop (which is pretty stupid, but I guess I wouldn’t trust Jerry with doing it either if I were him).
Brown: Once again, pride becomes the downfall of a character in this movie.
During the ransom drop, Carl gets shot in the face and is bleeding profusely. There was a part of me that thought he’d start clogging his wound with a couple $100-dollar bills from the ransom satchel. And with that satchel, I really thought the father-in-law would throw his used undies to Buscemi as a form of foreshadowing to “The Big Lebowski.”
A callback I want to mention is Carl’s struggle with the tellers at the parking garage. There’s a scene earlier where Carl gets into a verbal spat with an attendant. Then after he takes the ransom, he runs into another teller who meets a much bloodier fate. This movie really knows how to play with the dark humor.
Froemming: We should also mention that Jerry gets very paranoid when Marge visits him at the dealership. I mean, he just oozes “guilty” in both scenes. The second time, Marge is a little more apprehensive about Jerry (again, after her run-in with her lying high school friend, she is less likely to believe what people tell her).
Brown: But, she’s too Minnesota Nice to outright tell Jerry he’s a liar.
Froemming: The look on her face when she sees Jerry driving off after he gets mad about her questions about stolen cars from the lot was hilarious.
Brown: Not to mention how she’s in a panic trying to call for police backup, but has to figure out how to dial out of the dealership. Again, this movie really does a fantastic job of putting comedy in at the right spots without dropping the tension.
Froemming: I agree. This is the one movie in the Coens’ filmography that I think mixes humor and drama the best.
Now, Carl has the money and is bleeding like a stuffed pig from the gunshot to his face. And he decides to hide the case of cash in the middle of nowhere, and give Gaear a little of the ransom money.
Brown: In a Minnesota homage, I was happy to see their little hideout on Moose Lake was littered with Grain Belt bottles.
Nevermind that Gaear killed Jean because she was making a little noise, he goes on and kills Carl and puts him through a wood chipper in the movie’s most famous scene. Once again, we see Gaear go full psycho rather quickly, which is so unnerving. I don’t think Gaear is as menacing or as compelling as Anton Chigurh, but Chigurh’s character owes his existence to the blueprint that Gaear provided.
Froemming: He kills Carl because Carl refuses to split the car (I, like Carl, also wondered how one splits a car). Also, Bruce Campbell is on the TV set in the cabin in some sort of soap opera, making him the only actor to be in both the film and series (which he confirmed to me on Twitter).
Good eye. I do believe I stand alone in that distinction. https://t.co/p2EyqSEehL
— Bruce Campbell (@GroovyBruce) February 10, 2016
But that wood chipper scene still is very disturbing to me, 20 years after I first saw it.
Brown: I don’t think it’s quite as impactful anymore because it’s been satirized so much, but it still conveys the terror of the situation pretty well. With that said, I feel like the final confrontation is kind of anticlimactic, but it certainly doesn’t kill the whole vibe of the movie.
Once Marge discovers the kidnappers’ whereabouts and apprehends Gaear, I like how she gives this cold-hearted murderer a talk like she’s Dog the Bounty Hunter, brah.
Froemming: I like how Marge puts it to Gaear: Was it worth it over a little money? That scene brings the whole madness of the situation down to a simple line: Was it worth it? Also, I liked how she chased this monster like a pro in that scene at the cabin, and the look of horror when she sees him stuffing that leg into the chipper. Again, McDormand was excellent in this film.
Brown: No argument here at all. I can’t think of any characters in this movie where I think to myself, “Meh, I think someone else could have played this better.”
I don’t know how much more we can say on this movie… Hell, it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture back in 1997.
Froemming: One last thing. When Jerry is finally caught in Bismarck, N.D., he howls like a trapped animal. He is finally caught and has to pay for the horror that he brought down on so many people. That, I think, was a great ending to this tragic story. But unless there is anything else, much like Gaear wants to get to Pancakes House, I want to get to recommendations.
Would You Recommend?:
Froemming: This is a no-brainer. This is one of the best films I have seen. It mixes humor and drama in a way only the Coen Brothers really can. I also love how Minnesota is used as a character itself in the film. I love what the TV show brought to this world as well. While the accents are over-the-top, and there are some quirks here and there that kind of bug me, to me this is probably my favorite Coens film, and the second would be “The Big Lebowski.”
Brown: A year ago, if you would have asked me this, I may have told you I thought this movie was overrated. Now, my tone’s changed. See this movie. I can’t think of many films that combine that blend of tension with a few chuckles thrown in to give it a unique flavor. Just remember: Not all of us Minnesotans talk like this!
Here is what’s coming up for the next Joe-Down: