Critics' Corner

Desson Howe - Weekend section, "A satirical, macabre saga ... works like a charm."


Rita Kempley - Style section, "A veritable celebration of white-bread soul."


A Fargo, N.D., native writes about the film


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"Fargo" won Oscars for Best Actress (Frances McDormand) and Best Original Screenplay


Coens Find Success in 'Fargo'

Minnesota car salesman Jerry Lundegaard travels to Fargo, N.D., where he hires thugs Carl and Gaear to have his wife kidnapped. Lundegaard, frustrated by his lack of access to his rich father-in-law's money, intends to split the ransom with Carl and Gaear.

But after the henchmen execute Lundegaard's plan, they're stopped on the road by a trooper and all hell breaks loose. The abductors get away with their hostage, but leave a bloody scene behind them. This brings in Police Chief Marge Gunderson, a sweet-tempered and pregnant rural American. As Lundegaard and his collaborators attempt to negotiate with his father-in-law, Gunderson conducts her first murder investigation. -- Desson Howe Rated R


Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Frances McDormand; William H. Macy; Steve Buscemi; Peter Stormare; Kristin Rudrud; Harve Presnell
Running Time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Filmographies: Frances McDormand; William H. Macy; Steve Buscemi








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In Cold Blood in Cold Climes

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 08, 1996

The Coen Brothers' "Fargo," a satirical, macabre saga set on the frigid plains of the American Midwest, works like a charm. A really weird charm, that is. Joel and Ethan Coen have discarded the pretentiousness of their most recent work ("Barton Fink," "The Hudsucker Proxy") in favor of the eerie spirit and deadpan-slapstick of their "Blood Simple" and "Raising Arizona."

And throughout the hypnotized Midwestern atmosphere of this movie-picture a cross between Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" and George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead"-Frances McDormand enjoys the comedic role of her career.

In the story, which is loosely based on real events, Minnesota car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) travels to Fargo, N.D., where he hires thugs Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) to have his wife (Kristin Rudrud) kidnapped. Lundegaard, frustrated by his lack of access to his rich father-in-law's money, intends to split the ransom with Carl and Gaear.

But after the henchmen execute Lundegaard's plan, they're stopped on the road by a trooper and all hell breaks loose. The abductors get away with their hostage, but leave a bloody scene behind them. This brings in Police Chief Marge Gunderson (McDormand), a sweet-tempered, rural American who's smart, sunny and heavily pregnant.

As Lundegaard and his collaborators attempt to negotiate with his father-in-law (Harve Presnell), Gunderson conducts her first murder investigation with remarkable, and comic, aplomb. At the crime scene, with bodies littered around an upturned car on the snowy plains, she performs her job with the chirrupy nature of a crossing guard.

"You see something down there, Marge?" asks her partner, as the pregnant inspector kneels next to the car. In the background, a corpse lies in the snow-covered field.

"No, I just think I'm going to barf," responds Gunderson sweetly. "Well, that passed," she declares a moment later. "Now I'm hungry again."

There's a nutty regionalism at work: A surrealistic statue of Paul Bunyan, for instance, greets visitors to Gunderson's little town; the goofy locals never seem to blink and pepper every sentence with a "Yaaaah." Into this, the Coens expertly weave the grotesque, as the kidnappers' desperate plight forces them to take bloodier measures.

But after watching this amusing, absorbing-but violent-story, I couldn't help wondering about Joel (the co-writer/director) and Ethan (the co-writer/producer) Coen. All of their movies, from "Blood Simple" on, seem so closed-in. Their stories are basically boxes within boxes: One revelation leads intriguingly to another. But the secret, the point, or the ultimate punch line becomes ever smaller.

Do they just sit agonizing at their word processors as they concoct bizarre scenarios involving bloodshed, irony and the strangest bits of dialogue they can dream up? Do these guys ever step outside themselves? Do they have a worldview, a feel for humanity, a sense of the great beyond? Do they read the papers?

It's worth seeing "Fargo" if you have the taste for this kind of irony, but please, also mutter a short prayer for the filmmakers to step outside once in a while and breathe a little oxygen.

FARGO (R) -- Contains sexual situations, profanity and gruesome violence.

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Coen's 'Fargo': How Swede It Is

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 08, 1996

After the high-profile failure of "The Hudsucker Proxy," the Coen brothers are back where they belong. "Fargo," their stylish Midwestern crimedy, is a veritable celebration of white-bread soul. This gleefully twisted tale primarily takes place in the Coens' native Minnesota, where descendants of Scandinavian pioneers face adversity with stoicism, all-you-can-eat smorgasbord and strong black coffee.

Geographically, the film's world isn't far from Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon. But thematically, it's a far cry from the Side Track Tap to the back roads of Brainerd, a rural village near the title city of Fargo, N.D. The story actually begins in a seedy saloon where Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) hires two dull-witted oafs to kidnap his wife. A bumbling car salesman in hock, Jerry plans to pay off the kidnappers and his debts with the ransom he collects from his wife's wealthy but tightfisted father.

However, the scheme goes awry when the crooks-yappy, chihuahua-faced Carl (Steve Buscemi) and lumpen, pancake-loving Gaer (Peter Stormare)-shoot down a state trooper and two innocent passersby on the outskirts of snow-blanketed Brainerd. The only witness: an ax-wielding statue honoring the town's favorite son, Paul Bunyan.

The triple murder falls under the jurisdiction of Brainerd's chipper police chief, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), the most endearing, hilarious and wholly feminine heroine since Thelma or Louise. Marge is seven months into her first pregnancy, but her impending maternity does not adversely affect her investigation. On the contrary, her awkward shape disarms her suspects just as Columbo's disheveled demeanor hides his clockwork mind.

Allegedly based on a true story, "Fargo" is suspiciously allegorical in pitting a giver of life against those who take it away. The notion is a mite coy, but director Joel and producer Ethan are both new fathers and should be indulged in this instance. Besides, "Fargo" isn't about birth, but the family values that we imagine still prevail on the Great Plains.

Written by Joel and Ethan, the screenplay bears an uncanny resemblance to their 1984 debut, "Blood Simple," although the plucky Marge seems evolved from the baby-crazy prison guard of their 1987 hit, "Raising Arizona." McDormand, an Oscar nominee for a supporting role in "Mississippi Burning" (and Joel's wife), uses an extravagant Scando-American accent to dandy comic effect. It's also refreshing to find the dialogue peppered with "ya betcha" and "oh, geez" rather than predictable profanities.

The Coens have been criticized for poking fun at the regional peculiarities of Arizona trailer trash, Texas yuppies and Irish drunks. Cries of Scando-bashing will doubtless ensue. Yet the brothers, who have always seemed fond of their characters, have never taken quite so overt a stand for life's simple joys: a warm bed, a loving partner and a hearty breakfast every morning.

Fargo is rated R for sex and violence.

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