Among the most cine-literate, widely read and idiosyncratic American filmmakers currently working, Joel and Ethan Coen truly became household names with the release of Fargo in 1996. Critics and cineastes may have been championing the Coen’s work since their moody debut Blood Simple in 1984, culminating in Barton Fink (1991) scooping 3 awards at the Cannes Film Festival, but it was their oddball tale of small-town lives, criminal ineptitude and funny-looking fellas that, crucially, reaped almost unanimous critical and public praise, impressive box office success and two Academy Awards from seven nominations.
An offbeat but seamless combination of affectionate portraiture, neo-noir plotline, graphic violence and black comedy, Fargo immediately stood out as the work of a duo who had come into full bloom and struck a chord with moviegoers the world over.
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Though the eponymous city of Fargo is in North Dakota, the vast majority of the film’s action takes place in the Coen’s home state of Minnesota. Its harsh winter weather, unpretentious locals and Scandinavian-tinged ‘singsong’ regional accent provided the brothers with a visually, emotionally and aurally arresting landscape that they utilised to the max. Joel and Ethan’s familiarity with the region and its residents shines through with the displays of ‘Minnesota nice’ – the stereotypically friendly, understated and self-deprecating manner attributed to the locals – most noticeably expressed by the intrepid, heavily pregnant local police chief, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand).
McDormand’s Academy Award for best actress recognised just one of a host of pitch-perfect performances in Fargo, with William H. Macy’s hapless man-on-the-edge Jerry Lundegaard, Steve Buscemi’s doomed kidnapper Carl Showalter and Peter Stormare’s monosyllabic, psychotic co-kidnapper Gaear Grimsrud the other leading protagonists in this blood-spattered part-tragedy, part-farce thriller. As with many of the brothers’ films, though, it’s not just the main protagonists that catch the eye. Marge’s softly spoken husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch), creepy sad sack Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) and ‘hookers #1 and #2’ (Larissa Kokernot and Melissa Peterman respectively) are just a few of the memorable supporting characters and bit-part players that inhabit the Coens’ funny-peculiar world.
With regular collaborators Carter Burwell scoring the film and Roger Deakins on cinematography duties, Joel and Ethan’s alternately warm, grim, comedic and tense screenplay was brought to life under the protective, unifying embrace of what, aptly, feels like a tight-knit family affair. In lesser hands, a narrative encompassing half a dozen murders, the financing of a parking lot, discussions about pancakes, postage stamps and a criminal’s uncircumcised penis could have appeared jarring and self-indulgent. Here, however, it made for one of the most original and enduring films of the 90s.
Such was Fargo’s popularity that 20 years later we’re now into the second season of the spin-off television show of the same name, and a number of films including Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998) and Mark Mylod’s The Big White (2005) clearly owe a debt to the antics and actions of Jerry, Marge and co. What of the films that influenced Fargo though? Here are five that may well have been in Joel and Ethan’s minds when penning their modern classic.
On Dangerous Ground (1951)
Director: Nicholas Ray
Based on Gerald Butler’s novel Mad with Much Heart, Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground sees violent, jaded city cop Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) emotionally transformed by a case he’s assigned to in rural upstate New York as punishment for viciously beating suspects. Investigating the murder of a young girl, Wilson joins a retributive manhunt across snowy terrain led by the victim’s revenge-fuelled father. After learning that the killer is mentally ill, after meeting the suspect’s blind, caring sister, Mary (Ida Lupino), Wilson undergoes a redemptive change in temperament. As Fargo would over 40 years later, On Dangerous Ground plays with, and upends, the traditional conventions of film noir.
Director: Jacques Tourneur
A love of and fascination for film noir clearly runs through much of the Coen brothers’ output, and Jacques Tourneur’s adaptation of David Goodis’ 1947 novel of the same name is an overt influence on Fargo. Written for the screen by Stirling Silliphant, this nifty, gripping tale features several elements that would later crop up in the Coens’ classic: two vicious but bumbling crooks, a bag of stolen cash, and a rural, wintry setting. Though Nightfall’s wrong man in the wrong place James Vanning (Aldo Ray) is drawn into danger for different reasons from the desperate Jerry Lundegaard, both men subsequently find themselves in way over their heads.
High and Low (1963)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Loosely based on the novel King’s Ransom, a 1959 entry into Ed McBain’s long-running 87th Precinct series, Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low is a tense crime drama much admired by Joel and Ethan Coen. Though Fargo would contain a comedic streak absent from Kurosawa’s lengthy police procedural, High and Low’s basic plot devices and character types were an evident influence. A botched kidnapping, a wealthy and stubborn businessman, dogged law enforcement officials and a perpetrator turning on his accomplices sound familiar? Jealousy rather than financial necessity may spawn High and Low’s crime, but the end results here, as in Fargo, are still incarceration or death.
Twin Peaks (1990-91)
Okay, so it’s not a film, but Lynch’s cult TV series cannot have failed to be assimilated by the Coens into their wide-ranging list of influences, especially in relation to Fargo’s pervading leftfield atmosphere. The small-town American setting, memorably strange characters and a loveable law enforcement official as a key figure are intrinsic to the success of Lynch and the Coen brothers’ respective works. Lifting the lid off homespun Americana to uncover dark secrets lurking underneath is also key to the appeal of both. A nod is also due to CBS’s Alaskan-set Northern Exposure for a cast of oddballs, many of whom would have been at home in rural Minnesota.
Brother’s Keeper (1992)
Directors: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
Bearing the Coen-esque tagline ‘A Heartwarming Tale of Murder’, it’s perhaps no surprise that Joel and Ethan chose Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s award-winning documentary as one of their 30 favourite films. The geographical, mental and emotional distances separating the residents of rural America from their urban counterparts are thrown into stark relief when one of 4 poorly educated, semi-literate brothers living in Munnsville, New York is charged with carrying out a mercy killing on a sibling. The accusatory views of the law and the media portray a very different, detrimental image of the downtrodden Ward brothers from the more affectionate, non-judgemental tone expressed by the tight-knit local community.