Written & Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Release Date: March 8, 1996
Running Time: 1hr 38min
[Spoilers ahead, this is just me showing my appreciation for this fantastic film!]
So, there’s this guy, Jerry Lundegaard (Macy), who’s the sales manager of an Oldsmobile dealership in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and he’s hard up for some cash. The dealership is owned by his father in law, Wade Gustafson (Presnell), who’s not too impressed with Jerry, so he’s not somebody to rely on for any kind of financial assistance. So, he travels to nearby Fargo, North Dakota to hire these two fellas, Carl Showalter (Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Stormare), to kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd), for $80,000 ransom (he’s actually going to say it’s $1 million to Wade), which he’ll split with them, plus they get a nice new car.
Aw jeez, but things sure do go sideways awfully quick. After kidnapping poor Jean, Carl and Gaear head to a remote cabin on Moose Lake, only to get pulled over by a state trooper stops them near Brainerd for driving without displaying temporary registration tags. Carl fails miserably to bribe the trooper, who hears some whimpering from Jean, so Gaear shoots the poor guy, along with a couple driving by who saw some of the carnage. That’s a mighty fine mess these two have gotten themselves into.
The following morning, Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson (McDormand), who is seven months pregnant, is called in to investigate the crime scene. She figures out pretty quickly that dead trooper was writing down dealer plate numbers, plus there’s a description of the car, and she’s able to narrow down where it came from in a jiffy. Jerry gets mighty nervous, especially trying to deal with Wade, who’s insistent on being there to make the handover.
The film premiered at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, where Joel Coen won the festival’s Prix de la mise en scène (Best Director Award) and the film was nominated for the Palme d’Or. The film was both a commercial and critical success, earning over $40 million on a $7 million budget. It had particular acclaim for the Coens’ direction and script and the performances of McDormand, Macy, and Buscemi. It received seven nominations at the 69th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Macy, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing, winning Best Actress for McDormand and Best Original Screenplay for the Coens.
In 2006 it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the United States by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”—one of only six films so designated in its first year of eligibility. In 1998, the American Film Institute named it one of the 100 greatest American films in history. A Coen-produced FX television series of the same name, inspired by the film and taking place in the same fictional universe, premiered in 2014 and received critical acclaim as well.
Oh yeah, this is a darn good picture! Ok, I’ll drop the Minnesota nice persona here to give my thoughts. This is a great movie! It’s easy to see why it often lists high on the Coen’s filmography. The contrast between the comedy and sudden bursts of violence is handled extremely well, and the dialogue is pitch perfect. None of the running time feels wasted. That Best Original Screenplay award was well earned.
McDormand gives one of her best performances as Marge (not that I can ever recall her not giving a memorable performance). Our first encounter with her comes off as nothing special, but she soon established herself as a good cop with a keen eye for detail. I particularly enjoy the scenes between her and her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch), the two are just so cute together. She provides plenty of funny moments, but also has moments of reflection amidst the pointless violence that occurs throughout the film. She’s pretty much the only competent person in this whole thing.
The performances from the other key players are also top notch, plus the smaller roles are done well. Macy is wonderfully incompetent/despicable/pathetic as Jerry, I wish this wasn’t his only film with the Coen’s. He sets up all the events and is then shocked when it all goes terribly wrong, but continues to try and weasel his way out of them. He has some of the qualities of a shady salesman, but he’s constantly ruining deals. It’s extremely clear that he’s only a manager because of Wade putting him there, mostly likely at the behest of Jean.
Buscemi is hilarious as Carl, constantly getting annoyed by small things, like Gaear never saying much. He’s also extremely petty and cheap, as on several occasions he tries to get out of paying for things, despite the fact that he’s soon to have a large sum of money. And when he discovers the ransom is much higher than what Jerry said, he thinks the best idea is to hide the case in front of a seemingly endless wire fence, with only a tiny windshield scraper as a marker for where it is.
And when Gaear wants one of them to pay half for the new car, Carl won’t budge on that, even with the knowledge that he has more money. Ok, at this point he’s also been shot in the face and has put up with a lot of shit, but still, big picture and all.
Stormare is effectively unhinged as Gaear. You get pretty early on that he doesn’t have the right disposition for kidnapping (not that kidnapping is a good thing, just saying his temperament makes him fairly bad at it). He’s very quick to bursts of violence to get out of a situation, and shows a very cold indifference to how things turn out. It’s darkly amusing that the only time he shows any real concern is when he’s watching some TV show where a character gives the dramatic reveal that’s she’s pregnant.
Presnell hadn’t been acting regularly in films for over 20 years when he was cast as Wade; after this he had steady work in film and TV till his death in 2009 from cancer. You’d almost feel bad for how he treats Jerry, if not for Jerry’s whole trying to orchestrate a kidnapping of his own wife to extort money from his father in law. Of course, Wade himself is pretty stubborn and causes his own set of issues in the movie as well, like trying to make the ransom deal himself. You get why he doesn’t trust Jerry with the handoff, but you also know things probably would’ve gone way more smoothly if Jerry had been the one doing the handoff. Then again, given what a fuckup he’s proven to be, he’s not doubt disappointed that Jean chose Jerry for a husband.
Jean doesn’t have much screen time, but what we do see makes it clear that she didn’t deserve the hand dealt to her (but you gotta have a plot). She’s your typical housewife, chopping away at vegetables or doing some needlepoint while watching TV, and clearly she loves her family. You just feel bad that her own husband would use her like this to get out of a financial crisis he causes for himself. I always got the impression that Jerry probably only got together with Jean because he thought he’d be living a more comfortable lifestyle, what with her dad being well off.
Regular cinematographer Roger Deakins does his usual amazing job, with every shot of the seemingly endless winter landscape look as bleak and cold as possible, but also giving us a few warm moments, such as scenes with Marge and Norm. I’m really surprised that composer Carter Burwell (another Coen regular) didn’t get an Academy Award nomination for his beautiful score. Seriously, it’s one that sticks with you long after the movie is over, especially the opening score.
So, yah! If you haven’t seen this movie yet, you best get out there and see it! And if you haven’t seen it in a while, you best give it another watch there, yah.
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