Fargo

Another scarcely believable anniversary (this one’s 25 years old), providing an opportunity of supplementing the open air cinema programme with a film that’s Any Good. Another film that’s not quite what you remember – the most memorable character, Frances Mcdormand’s Marge Gunderson doesn’t appear till half way through, and another film that’s excellent in a way that you just can’t articulate.

For one thing, nothing much happens in Fargo. This is a bold statement about a film which contains a few murders and a notorious wood chipper incident, but for most of the time it’s about the mundanities of life – a car which needs a jump start, a television with bad reception, a bag of worms perused during breakfast.

And while there are a number of finely drawn characters, you struggle to remember what any of them are called. Fortunately, many are played by semi-famous actors, so it’s possible to keep a mental track of who is doing what to whom. The plot is slight as far as it goes, but here’s a rough shot at trying to summarize.

William H Macy is a disreputable car dealer (is there any other kind?) who’s having financial problems. He has the idea of hiring a couple of lowlifes (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, for which he’ll pay them half the $80,000 ransom to be paid by his rich father-in-law. Well, William H. says that the ransom is for $80,000 – he’s actually asking for a million.

Steve is nervous, talkative. Two different witnesses call him “funny looking, more so than most”, but can’t elaborate. What they’re trying to say is that he looks like Steve Buscemi. Steve is the brains of the outfit – well, these things are relative. Peter, who never says anything when he doesn’t have to, is the muscle. Stuck in a car together, they start to irritate each other very quickly.

Anyway, the kidnap happens, Steve and Peter run off with William H.’s wife, pausing only to shoot a traffic cop and a couple of witnesses. They demand more money from William H., father-in-law gets involved, more people are shot, and the cases are solved by Frances/Marge who is a pregnant cop with a Farrah Fawcett haircut and a silly accent.

The silly accent could have quite easily be played for laughs – it does sound quite ridiculous, and is shared by most of the locals (well, William H.’s accent comes and goes). And yet it is more a sign of authenticity. Those people from the Big City out of town may have their ways, but it is the good folk of Fargo and nearby town Brainerd (“Home of Paul Bunyan”) who get things done.

Similarly, although pretty much everyone – with the single exception of Frances/Marge – is spectacularly bad at what they do, they are not ridiculed. Scenes are played for laughs, but not at their expense. This is a film that takes it for granted that characters don’t look like movie stars, and that their achievements tend to be very mediocre.

There is also a number of subplots which have little obvious connection to the film, but somehow add to its breadth. Marge’s pregnancy, for example. You remember the scene which is interrupted because she had to have a morning sickness-induced puke. This does nothing to advance the plot, as such, but is somehow just funny. See what I mean about it difficult to explain just why Fargo is good?

The puking pregnant woman is not the only slightly irrelevant scene which is intrinsic to the film. An old schoolfriend of Frances/Marge sees her on the news report, meets up with her and hits on her. William H.’s son leaves dinner early so he can meet his mates in McDonalds. William H. regularly tries to dupe customers to paying extra for underseal. The plot doesn’t depend on any of these scenes, but somehow the film is richer for them.

Fargo appears to be entirely without cynicism. While this is not always a good thing in film, here it seems to work. We cheer for the optimist Frances/Marge against the weaselly Steve, even though he’s clearly the more interesting character. In fact, the film needs both of them. More of this sort of thing – even though its main quality is that it’s not really like anything else.

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