Fargo review – Coen brothers’ snowbound noir is still a work of gleaming brilliance

The Coens’ rereleased thriller about a pregnant police chief investigating a bungled kidnapping is a noir without cynicism; a macabre black comedy with purity at its core

Now rereleased for its 25th anniversary, Ethan and Joel Coen’s perfectly flavoured comedy-thriller Fargo has become an established classic noir. Or maybe noir-blanc, a tale of criminal wickedness and weakness in the vast, snowy-white landscapes of Minnesota and North Dakota. Since 1996, something in Fargo’s macabre black comedy – the Garrison-Keillor-meets-James-M-Cain approach – has proved fertile: it inseminated a streaming-TV property now spanning four seasons. But the original film now looks better than ever, and it’s down to its keeping the quirkiness relevant and in check (something the Coens maybe haven’t always been able to achieve), and its brilliance in making the forces of law and order look as interesting and funny as the bad guys.

There is an outstanding performance from Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson, a seven-months pregnant chief of police investigating the brutal slaying of a state trooper and two locals. These people have been killed by two grotesquely incompetent hoodlums, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare), who were hired by weak and greedy car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, superbly played by William H Macy, his great, plaintive blue eyes radiating self-pity and impotent resentment. Jerry had engaged these guys to kidnap his blameless wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd), so that Jerry’s wealthy father-in-law, Wade (Harve Presnell), would spring for the million-dollar ransom, which Jerry would secretly collect for himself, allowing his two crooks a modest fee.

Marge Gunderson is the very image of midwest decency and modesty, blooming with health and friendly openness – though she is also a brilliant detective with great intuition and procedural sense, entirely unfazed by the ugliness and violence of the case. In one scene, the Coens show that she is almost ready to give Jerry the benefit of the doubt, despite his guilty manner, because, with his dorky love of golf, Jerry doesn’t appear so very different to Marge’s great big lovable lunk of a husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch). Marge has her own impregnable core of innocence and is still capable of being shocked. When old school friend Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) contacts Marge and starts coming on to her, Marge is stunned by what she finds out about him. This movie is a noir but there is no cynicism; Marge sees the very worst that human nature has to offer, but doesn’t become a wisecracking seen-it-all shady lady; she is still entirely fresh, and her pregnancy, that hope for the future, is uncompromised.

Fargo is speckled with those ironising tics that keep us off balance: after one strained conversation in a diner, a parodically perky young woman at the till asks: “How was everything today?” and the question jars and crashes; she is like a figure from a bad dream. The Coen style is so difficult to pin down here. The witnesses that Marge interviews describe Stormare’s character as “funny looking” without being able to say why, and trying to describe this film’s tone raises the same difficulty.

Peter Stormare and Steve Buscemi as the kidnappers.
Difficult to pin down … Peter Stormare and Steve Buscemi as the kidnappers. Photograph: Ronald Grant

It is the piercing whiteness of the snow that is Fargo’s design motif and moral universe. The people thereabouts may be warm but the weather is deathly cold and forbidding, with that vast featureless landscape eerily disclosed in various overhead shots. The snow can reveal the wrongdoer (Marge importantly finds incriminating footprints in it) but it also covers up the crime: the snow is where Carl wants to bury his ill-gotten share of the loot. Snow is associated with virginal innocence, but the snow of Fargo is drenched with guilt. David Lynch might have told the story of Fargo by making it unsolved and insoluble; Quentin Tarantino might have explained the sudden spasms of violence by making the culprits ingest a lot of cocaine or crack. The Coens make it more realist and more humanly sympathetic, and McDormand is perfect in the role.

• Fargo is released on 11 June in cinemas.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Blood Simple: Director's Cut review – Coens' debut is an ingeniously horrible noir masterwork
A gloriously repellent performance by M Emmet Walsh is one of many highlights of this thriller – a drum-tight gem that launched a film-making phenomenon

Peter Bradshaw

05, Oct, 2017 @2:30 PM

Article image
Coen brothers to adapt Fargo for TV channel FX
Billy Bob Thornton to take lead role in belated spinoff from 1996 film in directors' first foray into TV

Catherine Shoard

05, Aug, 2013 @6:54 PM

Article image
Coen brothers developing Fargo TV series
Joel and Ethan Coen to bring Oscar-winning film to the small screen, continuing the story of police chief Marge Gunderson

Ben Child

25, Sep, 2012 @10:00 AM

Article image
Coen brothers reunite for Fargo-like spy movie

Working Title, Britain's most successful film company, is to renew its working relationship with the Coen brothers.

Charlotte Higgins

23, May, 2007 @9:13 AM

Article image
Frances McDormand’s 10 best performances – ranked!
Shortly to be seen on our screens in Women Talking, the actor is enjoying a fruitful – and Oscar-hauling – career third act, creating work that is empathic, political, and often doesn’t look like acting at all

Andrew Pulver

26, Jan, 2023 @12:18 PM

Article image
Luca Guadagnino to remake Scarface with Coen brothers script
Call Me By Your Name director to take on long-planned update of classic gangster film

Andrew Pulver

15, May, 2020 @10:48 AM

Article image
Coen brothers sign up for Ross Macdonald adaptation Black Money
Writer-director duo have agreed to write script for adaptation of hardboiled detective novel, and possibly direct it further down the line

Andrew Pulver

06, Aug, 2015 @9:02 AM

Article image
Top 10 film noir

Guns, dames and hats: you can't have a film noir without them, can you? Take a look at the Guardian and Observer critics list of the best 10 noirs and you'll realise things aren't that simple …

29, Nov, 2013 @4:19 PM

Article image
‘A post-menopausal Macbeth’: Joel Coen on tackling Shakespeare with Frances McDormand
The writer-director talks about his new film co-starring Denzel Washington, and reveals how it felt to work without his brother, Ethan, for the first time in nearly 40 years

Peter Bradshaw

03, Dec, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
Dreamland review – distasteful dystopian noir
Juliette Lewis plays an unhinged diplomat’s wife and party animal in this pulpy thriller about sex-trafficking gangsters

Cath Clarke

08, Apr, 2020 @1:00 PM