When Fargo was released 20 years ago, its subsequent success would have seemed unlikely, even impossible. The Coen brothers’ three previous films had all failed at the box office, despite receiving glowing reviews. On its surface the film would seem too dark and too violent to ever attract audiences, another flop in the making. But Fargo surpassed all expectations, becoming one of the Coens’ most successful films. More importantly, it represents their greatest artistic achievement. Joel and Ethan Coen have created many great films since Fargo, but none have managed to reach that same pinnacle.
Fargo has some of the grandest themes of any Coen brothers film. It concerns itself with nothing short of the nature of evil, and it details the ways in which weak people can be seduced by its charms. Jerry Lundegaard, played by the perennially underrated William H. Macy, is the weak man. The movie never actually makes Lundegaard’s financial situation clear: does he need money to cover debts, or does his greed entice him to break free of his middle class life? Regardless, Lundegaard tries to improve his situation through various means, legal and not. He secures a bogus loan on cars that don’t exist, then fails to get funding from his wealthy father-in-law to purchase a piece of land.
Lundegaard crosses an invisible line when he hires two hitmen to kidnap his wife, intending for his father-in-law to pay a large ransom. Lundegaard will pocket most of the money, then reward the hitmen with a paltry sum and a new burnt umber Sierra Oldsmobile. The incessant, over-caffeinated voice of the hitmen is Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi), and the mostly silent psychopath of the duo is Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare, a Swedish actor who played Hamlet onstage for Ingmar Bergman). Buscemi plays a bumbling comic figure, but Stormare is the truly evil figure. His character has no regard for human life, and daily interactions simply bore him. He spends most of the film with a cigarette precariously balanced on his lip, just about to fall off his face. He only wakes up from his stupor in moments of violence.
Police Chief Marge Gundersen (played by Frances McDormand) is the opposite of Lundegaard and Grismrud, strong and moral where they are weak and immoral. In a bold move, the Coens don’t introduce her until 33 minutes into the film, an inversion of Janet Leigh’s infamous disappearing act in Psycho. At first it seems like Marge’s character might just be an exercise in upending expectations: most viewers would have expected a male police officer to investigate the case, and a very pregnant officer is about as far as you can get from those expectations. Despite lacking the darkness so popular among fictional cops, Marge is still just as professional and quick-witted. Her exaggerated Minnesotan accent helps to fool suspects into revealing their secrets. (The accent and Minnesota nice demeanor are responsible for some of the funniest scenes in the film.)
Part of Marge’s investigative skills revolve around her ability to filter seemingly meaningless details into an ordered picture. The most famous example is the controversial Mike Yanagita scene; Yanagita, a high school acquaintance, calls up Marge in the dead of night after seeing her on TV and tries to set up a meeting with her. When Marge agrees to do lunch, it’s clear that Yanagita is smitten with her. He also reveals that his wife, a former classmate, recently died of cancer. After their incredibly awkward lunch, Marge learns that Yanagita was never actually married, and that his fake wife is quite alive and had been stalked by a deranged Yanagita for years. Todd VanDerWerff has made an exhaustive summation of competing theories about the Mike Yanagita scene that is well worth checking out. To some, like Fargo television series creator Noah Hawley, the scene is just an example of how weird real life can be. But a more compelling, and not necessarily mutually exclusive theory, holds that the scene is an instance in which Marge realizes that Yanagita was being deceitful, and then decides to take a closer look at Lundegaard, also a deceitful character.
That latter interpretation seems most logical based on the structure of the film: Marge goes back to meet with Lundegaard after learning the truth about Yanagita. But perhaps the scene may serve an additional purpose. Aside from her final confrontation with the kidnappers, the only other moment when Marge is really in any danger is during her meeting with Yanagita. He’s an obsessed, potentially deranged person who has already stalked one woman, and now Marge is meeting him alone in a city far from home. The dialogue plays the scene for laughs, but it takes on a much more sinister tone when Marge learns that Yanagita was lying the whole time. By making their protagonist a pregnant, female police chief, the Coens have already shown that they are sympathetic to taking a feminist approach to the film; in that light, Marge’s meeting with a man who has a dangerous obsession with women exposes the commonplace fears that can afflict any woman.
Even knowing the dangers she faces in life, Marge’s optimism is still infectious. The smile that she uses to disarm suspects is just as often sincere. When Marge takes Grimsrud into custody after the climax, she can’t help but question if all the death was worth it. “There’s more to life than a little money,” she informs him. “Don’t you know that?” She ends her soliloquy by noting that it’s a beautiful day, when in fact it’s objectively a dreary day. The moment is a sign of her enduring optimism. Later, when her husband announces that he won a stamp illustration contest, but only for “the three cent,” it’s Marge who points out that everyone needs that one to add extra postage whenever the rates go up. It’s a charming note of optimism to end the film on, and one that the Coen’s have never returned to outside of their broader comedies.
McDormand would go on to win a well-deserved Academy Award for her performance, as would the Coen brothers for their screenplay. At the time of its release the film became the Coens’ highest grossing film to date, and its influence has only grown over time. Now regarded as a modern classic, Fargo has entered our culture in a way that few films from the period have; perhaps only Pulp Fiction is as distinctive among ‘90s films. The Coen Brothers have made other fascinating films and have experimented freely since the success of Fargo, but none of their other films have had such a perfect synthesis of their dramatic and comedic skills. It’s hard to top a film as iconic as Fargo, but if anyone can do it, the Coen brothers just might.