Tuesday, March 08, 2016

What Was It About 'Fargo'?

"Mind if I sit down? I'm carrying quite a load here."

Marge (Frances McDormand)

What is it, I have to ask, about "Fargo," which premiered on this day in 1996, that makes it one of my favorite movies?

I've seen other Coen brothers movies, and, to be perfectly honest, the story in "Fargo" doesn't strike me as being particularly remarkable when compared to those other movies.

I've seen William H. Macy in other movies, for that matter, and I think he is always good, no matter what kind of role he has been given to play — but I'm not sure I saw him in anything before I saw "Fargo."

The same is mostly true of Frances McDormand, who won Best Actress for her performance. I did see her in "Mississippi Burning" years before she made "Fargo," and I also saw her in "Short Cuts" before I saw "Fargo." She is consistently good.

Likewise, I had seen Steve Buscemi in movies before — "Reservoir Dogs," for example. I think he, too, is always good. His performance in "Fargo" was not an exception for him.

"Fargo" wasn't unique, nor was its cast.

And the supposed inspiration for the movie — a true story — wasn't unique, either.

However ...

"To watch it is to experience steadily mounting delight, as you realize the filmmakers have taken enormous risks, gotten away with them and made a movie that is completely original," wrote Roger Ebert, "and as familiar as an old shoe — or a rubbersoled hunting boot from Land's End, more likely."

McDormand played a pregnant police chief investigating a murder that she connected with the apparent kidnapping of the wife of a Minnesota car salesman (Macy) who had been having financial problems. No one else apparently knew about these financial difficulties. The idea was for the wife to be kidnapped and held for ransom by a couple of criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare). The salesman's father–in–law was a wealthy man who would pay the ransom for his daughter's safe return.

The criminals were in on Macy's plot, you see. They would give the ransom money to Macy. In return the criminals would be paid half of the ransom money and a then–new vehicle — leaving Macy with more than enough money to pay off his debts.

Which led to an obvious question that Buscemi's character asked Macy in their first meeting, "Why don't you just ask him for the money?"

"Or your fucking wife, you know," chimed in Stormare's character.

"Well, it's all just part of this," Macy said in his smarmiest manner. "They don't know I need it, see. OK, so there's that. And even if they did, I wouldn't get it. So there's that on top then. See, these're personal matters."

However, as Ebert observed, "To describe the plot is to risk spoiling its surprises," and I feel compelled to, in Ebert's own words, "tread carefully."

On the surface, the plan seemed simple enough. But the film had an ample supply of that eccentric irony that is always present in Coen brothers movies; thus, there were many little twists and turns, which prodded Macy into what may have been the best performance of his career. It was worthy of Hitchcock; as Ebert described it, Macy was trapped in "the unbearable agony of a man who needs to think fast and whose brain is scrambled with fear, guilt and the crazy illusion that he can somehow still pull this thing off."

As I say, things just didn't go according to plan. Right from the start — the kidnapping itself didn't go smoothly. En route to the kidnappers' cabin hideout, they were stopped by a state trooper, who was shot and killed. Enter McDormand, who was chief of police in the town where the murder occurred. McDormand's character pieced everything together perfectly.

I thought her interrogation of two hookers who slept with Buscemi and Stormare, then hung around long enough to watch late&night TV with them, was hilarious, especially their Minnesota accents. Every time I see it, I remember an appearance by Minnesota native Lea Thompson on The Tonight Show around the time "Fargo" was in the theaters. She said she had been back to Minnesota and had talked with some of her old friends about the movie.

"Yah, but you know nobody talks like that," she said one of her friends had said to her. In truth, everyone in the movie talked like that.

If you haven't seen the movie, I will leave it to you to discover how McDormand figured out what had happened — and how, in the process, she applied increasing pressure to Macy's character, who was totally incompetent when it came to carrying out a crime.

As each new problem surfaced — for example, illegible serial numbers on nonexistent cars for which he was trying to get a car loan company to pay — he got caught tighter in that vise.

I'm really no closer to answering my original question: Why is "Fargo" one of my favorite movies?

I don't know, but, perhaps, Ebert came close to an answer when he wrote, "Films like 'Fargo' are why I love the movies."