To think this story is true boggles the mind. But at the same time that isn't the most important aspect of the film. The opening title card informs us that this is all firmly based in fact, only the names have been changed to protect those close to the events. But it doesn't matter, because once we become pulled into the universe of Fargo, truth becomes unimportant. I don't think I needed the title card in the beginning, but it's there and it's fine. Having the title card doesn't take away from what Fargo is, and that is a masterpiece.
Perhaps the most endearing quality of the writing/directing siblings Joel and Ethan Coen is their ability to create an entire universe of characters just a slight bit off center. They have quirks and ticks, but they are firm realizations in their surroundings. Nobody ever seems miscast or out of place in a Coen Brothers film. In Fargo, The Coen Brothers take us into a world which is simultaneously unusual and ordinary, depending on your location. The folks of these Northern towns have their own dialogue and slang and a strong sense of politeness which serves almost as an additional character. Where better than to place a tale of murder, deception, greed, desperation, and pure idiocy, than in one of the most polite and welcoming regions of the country?
The plan seems simple: Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy, redefining the "louse" in cinema) is in need of some cash fast. He hires two men to kidnap his wife and demand a ransom which will be paid by Jerry's wealthy father-in-law. Jerry tells the two men the ransom will be $80,000 and he will split the cash. Little do these two men know Jerry will tell his father-in-law, Wade, the kidnappers are demanding a million. Seems Jerry's previous shady dealings have put him in a desperate place. The two men, Carl and Gaear, are played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormaire as one of the most brilliantly absurd odd couples in film history. Carl is chatty, nervous and, well, Steve Buscemi. Gaear is quiet, stern and, as it turns out, a psychopath. Of course the kidnapping is clumsy and the aftermath brings about one problem after another. There is a triple murder which brings into play the most important character in the film.
Marge Gunderson is the Sheriff in Brainerd, home of Paul Bunyan where the triple homicide occurred. Played by Frances McDormand, who would go on to win the Oscar for Best Actress, Marge is a sharp investigator, outsmarting her less-than-competent deputy at the murder scene. She also happens to be six or seven months pregnant, adding a subtle layer to her character. Marge is the moral center of a film loaded with amoral characters, crooks and thieves and weasels. Without her centering force in the film, Fargo may have devolved into a seedy crime flick with nobody to root for. As it is, however, the film is a charmer even during its most violent moments thanks to Marge's insistent likability.
Fargo is essentially split into two narratives with threads connecting them. There is the story of Carl and Gaear and the kidnapped wife, and there is Marge's investigation which leads her eventually to Jerry Lundegaard, who slowly unravels as the story progresses and more and more things go wrong. The third act shows everything unraveling surrounding the kidnapping and Marge getting closer and closer to her answer. What is so unique, then, about Fargo, is the universe created by the Coens. It isn't simply a gimmick either, the creation of these loopy dialects and chipper personas. The whole vibe created by the characters show a land snowbound, but happy. To think anyone up here could murder anyone else seems shocking to the police and townsfolk in North Dakota.
The politeness is also important in Marge's investigation, as a chance meeting one night with an old highschool friend, Ken, changes her opinion of Jerry Lundegaard. Ken lies to Marge about a dead wife, and his deception shakes Marge's preconceived notion that perhaps Jerry isn't being as truthful as she initially thought. It took a while to figure out where Marge's meeting with Ken fit, but the effectiveness is in Marge's eyes as she hears Ken's story was a sham. The angle of politeness hides what is lurking in the dark hearts of some of these characters, and is a brilliant addition to the story.
Fargo was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and it would win one for Best Actress and Original Screenplay for Joel and Ethan Coen. I would argue that Roger Deakins was robbed of a cinematography statue as well, as his stark and broad canvas of a snowbound Northern land is beautiful and at times very ominous. Unfortunately, Fargo would lose Best Picture to The English Patient, a decision I would argue was incorrect, especially with the advantage of hindsight.