Is the snowbound black comedy still kinda funny lookin’? Elaine Malcolmson peers cautiously into the wood chipper.
What and why: The Coen Brothers’ black comedy set in small-town Minnesota is 20 this year. Am I going to find out if it should be rated or dated? You’re damned tootin! I’ll try to keep it spoiler-light in case you haven’t seen it, although I can lend you the DVD. I actually can’t remember why I liked it, which makes it a good specimen for rating or dating.
Rated or dated: Fargo’s central plot is pretty straightforward, a kidnapping gone wrong. What I really remember though is the slow pace, and the snow. Lots of snow (see also Force Majeure and the Lilyhammer series). The snow is clearly a perfect contrast to the darkness of the film. The wood-chipper scene is one that stays with you, and maybe it wouldn’t have been so striking without the snow.
Fargo is thick with contrasts: The badness of the baddies is the antithesis of the goodness of the local cop Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and her painter husband. The fact that she is pregnant doesn’t necessarily add to the lightness, it intensifies the darkness.
The small-town, “nothing ever happens here” vibe against the kidnapping, the multiple murders, the background fraud, and that wood-chipper. The softly singing Minnesota accent against the angry, frustrated twang of Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi). The small kinda-funny-lookin’ motormouth crook and his larger, mostly mute partner. The graphic violence of an “execution type-deal” juxtaposed with the serenity of painting a duck.
“Try to imagine Marge Gunderson instead of Sarah Lund as the lead in Scandi Noir hit The Killing; your head will end up in a knot.”
It can be difficult to clarify where the comedy is coming from when such dark and brutal scenes are involved. What the heck do ya mean, Elaine? Well, comedy is subjective but someone getting shot in the face isn’t a standard setting for funnies. Although, neither is a desperate man scraping ice off his car window in a bleak car park.
Let’s not put an unwelcome layer of TruCoat on this. Fargo is not a laugh-a-minute, side-busting trip on the monorail straight into LOLville’s central business district. It is a slow-paced thriller that regularly takes the bus to Chuckleburg’s out-of-town retail park.
The majority of the humour stems from the characters. It’s in the pitifulness of Jerry Lundegaard (William H Macy), somehow managing to dig himself into a deeper and deeper hole in that snow. It’s the matter of fact Marge Gunderson and the reckless frustration of Carl Showalter. At some point in the film you may find yourself feeling sorry for each individual character, hero and villain.
To consider whether Fargo is rated or dated we should compare it to what the tuned-in folk are into now. Was Fargo a predecessor of the Scandi Noir craze? (or Nordic Noir, depending on where you’re coming from). Was it a pioneer in the Scandi Settler Noir genre, that I might have just invented? Try to imagine Marge instead of Sarah Lund as the lead in Scandi Noir hit The Killing; your head will end up in a knot.
Marge is the real hero here, solving a kidnapping and multiple murders and apprehending a killer while carrying the weight of seven months of pregnancy. Sarah Lund only carries the weight of her lambswool sweater (and her complex, unresolved relationship issues).
On watching again, I still rate Fargo. Some of the scenes scare the “oh geez” out of me. However, the outstanding characters allow the Coen brothers to pull humour out of blackness and confirm this as a classic.
Has Fargo stood the test of time? Yah, you betcha! RATED
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Elaine Malcolmson is a comedian, writer and science communicator. Raised in Northern Ireland, lived in Wales, now resides in Glasgow – bewildering brogue.