[1996] Fargo

Fargo, North Dakota, the place, sits on a crossroads betwixt Interstates 29 and 94, whose interchange will direct travelers from Billings, Montana to Kansas City, Missouri (or Kansas, pick ’em). The clover design is meant to deliver ease to drivers, eliminating the need for other traffic control measures, like stoplights, and to allow drivers to continue their blissful 17 hour drive across the barren nothingness. There’s a faster way, of course, that takes our drivers through Sioux Falls, SD, eliminating the need to travel through North Dakota at all. But that’s not why our family is on this road trip; it’s to see America, as the framers of the state lines intended.

Across Montana, through Dakota (N), then south through Dakota (S), our family will miss Nebraska totally, through a planning decision that routed I-29 along Iowa’s western edge, instead of Nebraska’s eastern boarder. It’s the same reason this sedan will miss Kansas, until this car makes it to dual thread Kansas City. It’s been a pleasant drive thanks to the hundreds of millions of dollars Americans paid to pave its lands so that it’s easy enough to drive hundreds of miles for pleasure. Interchanges abound.

Fargo, the movie, happened somewhere on these interchanges, or maybe even further east, in Minnesota, where Jerry Lundegaard (brilliantly oafed by William H. Macy) started his slow tumble into madness. This character is a naïve klutz; a harebrain among pinheads, all of them. Every part of Lundegaard is a cruel gag. It’s where the Coens’ now thrive, casting characterization itself as a character, but were using their early work as a playground. Audiences hear “The Dude” and conjure exactly the effusive image of Jeff Bridges in his robe, sipping unpaid-for milk. Audiences also hear Jerry Lundegaard and think “oh yea, you betcha,” in that Minne-sowta drawl; they think of “Farego” and the woodchipper. It’s a triumph. (This is auteur theory).

Fargo‘s pacing, slow and swirling, mirrors the upper Midwest, which is cold and confusing. At some point the Coens’ split Fargo in two: there’s Lundegaard’s chase caper, replete with a botched kidnapping, murderous, unscrupulous ne’er-do-wells, an avaricious, disappointed father, a do-gooder cop, and the whole state of Minnesota. The cut of this film alone isn’t interesting as a 100 minute movie. Then there’s Jerry’s bumbling buffoonery; he’s his own useful idiot. The Coens, again, are so overwhelmingly good at capturing the essence of a person and his place. Jerry is sure that his plan is foolproof; Jerry is sure that his father-in-law will cut him into the deal; he’s sure that he can control men who murder for sport; he’s positive that he can’t get caught–because Jerry didn’t do anything wrong.

It’s I-29 meets I-94 in film form, full of clovers. These two interlocking stories don’t crash into each other at any point and the audience is in on the joke, which is a winning formula and makes for a great story that’s fun to watch. The Coens have been making movies that feel fresh and fun and concise for 30 years.

Fargo is not a Jerry Lundegaard movie, despite all its Jerry Lundegaard dopey lumbering. It’s a Marge Gunderson (the irreplaceable Frances McDormand) movie, an earnestly naïve character who isn’t in on the joke, which makes her an anti…-anti?-hero. She doesn’t see irony like the Coens do, and is only half-meandering from one blunder to the next asking: “well how’d that happen?” She’s the proto-Jerry and the anti-Lundegaard, which makes her a more interesting character. Gunderson is an excellent police officer, but is still prone to Minnesowtaisms and her extreme hope in the unfettering goodness of people (she’s always let down). Everyone is on their fifteenth chance with Marge Gunderson. Jerry doesn’t understand the concept of chances. Lundegaard’s one shot is split into a million little pieces.

Marge Gunderson is the trip through Sioux Falls, instead of the more scenic route through Fargo. That’s where Fargo‘s pressure point is. Marge is a whole other Dakota to Jerry’s  North Dakota, a state in which he’s likely visited just the one time, for some reason, to order a fake kidnapping of his wife and ending his life. Some drivers actually blow through Fargo, while traveling east from Billings, and stumble into Minneapolis where there’s always a good day waiting for them. Unless they’re an idiot.

The English Patient always feels like a secret movie (not to be confused with fellow 1996 nominee, Secrets & Lies), as either it’s above the ruckus, super-serious film, or as a spiritual successor to Lawrence of Arabia. Before on-demand, it seemed that The English Patient was never on television because it’s near three-hour run time and drab (to some) subject matter would test the audiences…well patience. Fargo did not win Best Picture in 1996, even though it’s enduring presence and an anthology television show carry on its spiritual integrity into 2021 and beyond. In a world without The English PatientFargo could have carried the mantle against feel-good Jerry Maguire and feel-bad Shine. Ya?

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