Hell freezes over: the Coen brothers on Fargo

In this piece first published in our May 1996 issue, the Coen brothers talk through six key scenes from their wintry modern classic Fargo, now re-released to mark its 25th anniversary.

Fargo (1996)

‘Cold’ is a word the filmmaking Coen Brothers know only too well: it’s a frequent description of their ludic, ironic approach to cinema, and the detached precision with which they unravel their stories.

Blood Simple, their 1983 debut, may have been set in an arid Texan landscape, where temperatures soared and ceiling fans and flies buzzed in the background, but it was a chilly twist on the standard contract-killer tale. Its array of lost characters short-fused in lurid fashion, while pale corpses stirred to life most unnaturally before becoming maggot chow.

This feature was first published in the May 1996 issue of Sight & Sound

1990’s Miller’s Crossing was an excavation of the 30s gangster genre (whether as construed in the black-and-white Warner Bros movies or on the inky dark pages of James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett). Cleverly plotted, it delighted to tease audiences with smart but often bafflingly abstract allusions: surely signs of an erudite but clinical sensibility at work?

1991’s Barton Fink, set in 40s Hollywood, wound its story round that ultimate nightmare, the writer’s block. It provided a glimpse of a clammy hell – which might not actually freeze over, but could at least nurture a substantial layer of mould.

And in their latest film, the elliptically titled Fargo, the coldness simply sweeps into the frame. The Minnesota-born brothers come home to the icy wastelands of the American north mid-west, with its Scandinavian influence. This vast tabula rasa of a blizzard-blasted landscape is the bleak backdrop to a story of a faked but botched kidnapping, apparently based on fact.

As the prologue explains, “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” Except there’s also the usual disclaimer: “No similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is intended or should be inferred.”

So snag yourself on that paradox, or leave it aside – the red roll-mop herring in the smorgasbord – as the Coens unfurl a defiantly moral tale. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy, best known as Dr Morgenstern in ER) is a shiny-suited car salesman whose dangerously inept ideas about improving his finances lead to a high bodycount rather than a healthy bank account, after he hires Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare as a sadistic Abbott-and-Costello team) to abduct his wife Jean (Kristin Rudriid).

But while the usual mordant Coen humour is much in evidence, one can (perversely, amid all the snow) discern a thawing out. The brothers demonstrate a wry, teasing affection for the community that they grew up in, and Fargo is almost warm in its depiction of this Siberian-looking patch of the United States, with its strangely unlikely town names (Brainerd).

Nor is this just jesting play any longer. The film has a melancholic gravitas to it, enhanced by a rolling Carter Burwell score that gives Bernard Herrmann-style plaintiveness a Scandinavian lilt. Ethnically it is specific: so much so that audiences used to cinema’s all-purpose Middle America may find the inhabitants of Fargo quite exotic, with their singing, Scandi-inflected accents, punctuating all sentences with a “yah” or two (a genuine patois, if strange to foreign ears).

But clearly these ‘Fargoese’ are not just weird specimens to be scrutinised: the Coens’ intricate sense of characterisation puts an eccentric spin on them. And by creating Marge Gunderson, the pregnant police chief who takes charge of the case (Frances McDormand – like Buscemi a Coen brothers regular – is married to Joel), they give the film its solid and wise core. With her portly husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch), a wildlife painter with his eyes on a postage-stamp contract, she is the calm centre in the violent storm that erupts.

1. Marge, the pregnant cop

Fargo (1996)Park Circus

Joel: Everyone is bulked-up, moving in a particular way, bouncing off people. That sponginess is part of the regional flavour. Marge’s pregnancy means she’s doubly bulked-up. She’s of the region, but is capable, which other characters aren’t. She wears a funny hat and walks funny, but is not a clown. We wanted her as far away as possible from the cliche cop. Marge and Jerry are both very banal, like the interiors and landscape. But she is banal in a good way, a good person where he is evil. We wanted to give them everyday concerns. Being pregnant: you can’t get more ordinary. ln movies you may not see them, but there are all kinds of pregnant cops.

2. Psychology of a car salesman  

Fargo (1996)Park Circus

Joel: Jerry is a car salesman – just like the real man – but a lot comes from Ethan’s experience buying a car five years ago.

Ethan: This scene revolves round the TruCoat Jerry is trying to sell. It is almost a verbatim transcript of my experience. We were interested in the psychology of a person who constructs those pyramid financial schemes but can’t project themselves a minute into the future or imagine the consequences.

Joel: Part of his being a car salesman was his imperviousness, sitting in a cubicle all day screwing people who scream at him. He is neat and tidy, not as we envisioned him. We imagined him a sloven, uncomfortable in his body, a little overweight. Casting Bill we went in the other direction. He is very put together, but tight and repressed.

Ethan: Bill refused to do a single scene without this inane pin on his suit, in token of five years’ service to car dealership.

3. Swedish food, mid-west life

John Carroll Lynch and France McDormand in Fargo (1996)

Ethan: Food was particularly important for Marge. She is always eating in the scenes with Norm.

Joel: In Minnesota you have all these smorgasbords. These Swedish-style eat-all-you-can deals were very much part of our childhood. Marge is pregnant, so she’s eating for a reason, but it is also that peculiarly Middle-American thing about mounds of food. She wants to catch the killer, but nothing gets in the way of lunch. John (Norm) is from Minnesota, as are all the subsidiary parts, so they were speaking in their own accents. The Tyrone Guthrie theatre is in Minneapolis, with a huge pool of very talented actors.

4. The kidnap scene

Fargo (1996)

Joel: It occurred to me, in retrospect, that this is the second movie that we have done about kidnapping – and we have another one lined up that centres on another kidnapping. A kidnapping is pregnant with dramatic possibilities – the conflicts, the high stakes, all the obvious drama and melodramatic things that are good movie fodder. One of my all time favourite movies is Kurosawa’s High and Low. It is probably the best kidnapping movie ever made, about a shoe salesman in Osaka whose son is supposed to be kidnapped but they get the chauffeur’s son. I don’t know why kidnappings are so fascinating, but they are.

5. Carl the motormouth

Fargo (1996)

Joel: We wrote the part of Carl specifically for Steve (as we wrote the parts of Marge for Fran, and Grim for Peter) because somehow it was appropriate that amongst all these second-generation Scandinavians we had a real Scandinavian. This is the fourth movie that we have done with Steve – unfortunately we have always just had little parts for him in the past. We are aware of his [psychotic] persona in other movies and wanted to push that in a specific direction. We wanted to write something substantial because he is so good. We first cast him in Miller’s Crossing because we were looking for someone who could talk incredibly fast. Carl’s part is the most verbal in Fargo – he is the motormouth and maybe it is connected to that.

6. Between snow and sky

Fargo (1996)

Joel: The key thing about the exteriors was that we couldn’t see the line between the sky and the snow. Up angles would be very similar to down angles: we wanted to have this void, blank, featureless look in which we put certain graphic details.

Ethan: Here Steve is burying the ransom-money which is never recovered. Again this detail comes from the fact that it is based on real life. And in real life things happen, objects of big dramatic concern just fall by the wayside. It was interesting not to have to do a story where it was architecturally pleasing, and there was a unified narrative, but where things can come and go as they do.

Joel: This is one of the few jokes in the movie. There are a lot of laughs, but this was a joke as joke – the fact that at this moment he checked from side to side in this ridiculously large, featureless, empty landscape to see if anyone was looking.

Further reading

The new issue of Sight and Sound

In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

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