Tuesday, May 3, 2011


JOHNNY CHAZZ: A lot really can happen in the middle of nowhere – and thus is the premise of so many terrific films over the years. This week, I turn my attention to one film in particular from 1996 which was a pioneer in taking the audience into the middle of nowhere and with a terrific blend of screenwriting, suspense and casting – “Fargo” becomes our topic and film recommendation this week.

Joel and Ethan Coen
Writers and directors Joel and Ethan Coen have become household names today – but such was not the case prior to the release of the magnificent “Fargo”. The ‘two-headed director’ gave us the wonderful “Miller’s Crossing” in the late 1980’s followed by the period piece “Barton Fink”. In 1994, the anti-corporate based “Hudsucker Proxy” would then hit the screen establishing the Coen’s as screenplay and genre masters.
Fargo” was really no different in terms of the quality of screenplay, which I continually stress on this blog. Receiving the Academy award for Best Screenplay as well as Best Actress, “Fargo” only propelled the career of these two directors into a new era. The directors were not sure if the film should be titled “Fargo” or “Brainerd”, but “Fargo” just seemed to roll of the tongue a bit better so thus was the choice for title. “Fargo” was not only refreshing, but also original as well immediately placing it in my top 100 list of all-time.

Set primarily in Minnesota and partially in North Dakota (Fargo) Jerry Lundegaard (played by Willam H. Macy) is an executive car salesman who has tremendous financial issues. Deciding to rid himself of these problems, he makes a ploy to have his wife kidnapped so that his well-to-do father-in-law will feel pressured and resigned to pay a heavy ransom thus relieving Jerry Lundegaard from debt. However, things go awry – terribly really as the quiet, yet shrewd and witty local police sergeant Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) arrives at the crime scene and tails the case all the way to the brutal yet timely climax.

The film works on so many levels and it was so amazing how a number of film-goers found the film, well – bare, bleak and dull. There are no special effects in the film which immediately turns-off 25% of audiences out there today and yesteryear. Secondly, the dialect used in the film was another character all-together but some audiences found it not only annoying, but distracting from the film. Audiences also felt that the film plodded along with a number of scenes which failed to drive the plot (examples might include the scene at the Radisson Hotel where Marge has a cocktail with an old college friend).

Fargo” was both a suspense thriller as well as a work of art. The barren surroundings work as a character within itself. The music is another character. The dialect (as mentioned previously) also works as a character relaying to audiences from the moment we hear "ya" – well, it places us in middle-America in an instant and there is no way out. We also hear terms such as “heck", "darn", and "yer darn tootins’". This type of dialogue is not only authentic to the region, but adds a touch of eccentricity and humor as we fall into the film’s comfort zone.

What makes “Fargo” work so well is the very fact that the narrative is always an issue, but at the same time it is never rushed. The scene at the cafeteria really does not move the plot, but what it does is something that great “films” do – that is to say – gives the audience a glimpse into the everyday idiosyncrasies of character so that we may gain a better understanding of their motivation. The scenes with the parking attendant and kidnapper Steve Buscemi’s character are another example of this. Finally, (other than the Radisson scene) the breakfast scene between Marge and her husband is so well carried out as we have a wonderful camera shot (a two-shot) peering in on an early morning couple while also having a view of the exterior climate through the front door. Pure genius.

Fargo” is a complex, honest and extremely well written and performed piece of work that works on numerous levels. It is classic film-noir and there are hints of so many films which precede and influence it. These might include: “Chinatown”, “Reservoir Dogs”, “Odds Against Tomorrow”, “The Maltese Falcon”, and perhaps even “Sunset Boulevard” in many ways. As for humor in “Fargo?” Yes. Suspense? Indeed. Character motivation? Undoubtedly. Set design and attention to details? Flawless. Thus, the key to “Fargo” is what is key to any great film – and that is what carries the story and the narrative…thus, the vehicle. In this case, it is the plot, the screenplay and dialogue, the set design, the attention to detail, the casting, and the score. I guess that sums it up- ***PICTURE POINTS: 9/10

JER: JC, you definitely gave this film a high-grade! Especially with how chintzy you can be with the higher numbers on your board. Now, let it be understood that I loved this film and I love the Coen Brothers and all that their repertoire has to offer… however, I don’t know if I could give FARGO such a high- grade as you did! I will tell you what I mean...

As well written as the “story” line is, I don’t know if I could say the same for the actual “screen” play itself. Sure, the dialog is quirky and well presented while offering an informative view point and allowing it to take on a character life all its own…but, one thing that truly stands out is the language coming through. I am not a prude, by any means! I love a good R- rated filled with sex, foul words and violence! But, somehow, there is a distinct counter-balance between Buscemi’s ‘f’ bombs and McDormand’s kind and polite manner of investigation. That may be intentional, as to show the audience what happens when two worlds collide! Buscemi is great…but he plays the same character in RESEVOIR DOGS, ARMAGEDDON and even DESPERADO! McDormand plays an entirely different and iconic character that we just haven’t seen before and there after since. One great ‘gag’ that the Coen brothers pulled in the making of this film, is the opening message about how this film is based on an actual true story. The event itself did actually occur, but all of the characters were a fabricated collective creation by Joel and Ethan Coen as well as working with each actor as to the portrayal of their individual character. So, in summary…excellent storyline and great screenplay!

Coen's pal: director Sam Raimi
There is a certain style of unique representation of film making that can be expected of any Coen brothers’ film…over-the-top every-day characters falling victim to their own devices, sharp and witty dialog, excellent cinematography and stylized and character-based distinct soundtracks! FARGO is very well represented in all accounts. It is so hard to focus on FARGO alone when BARTON FINK, HUDSUCKER PROXY, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and even RAISING ARIZONA are tailing so closely behind! It ain’t fair, I tell ya! A little back history here: the Coen brothers are from the same side of Detroit as fellow film-maker Sam Raimi (EVIL DEAD, SPIDERMAN) and actor Bruce Campbell (ARMY OF DARKNESS). All of them grew up loving “The Three Stooges” and understood the mechanics of pratfalls and slapstick! The Coens’ and Raimi worked on a few projects together including Raimi’s appearance as an actor in the Coen brothers’ THE HUDSUCKER PROXY and MILLER’S CROSSING.

But, it is FARGO that we are recognizing and highlighting by JC’s recommendation. Nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, FARGO won two: Best Actress (Frances McDormand) and Best Original Screenplay. FARGO would go on to win 52 different awards from various agencies recognizing achievements in film making.
As I revisited FARGO the other night, I couldn’t help compare similarities to the TWIN PEAKS television series presented by director David Lynch in 1990. Both films introduce us to odd, yet intriguing characters, authentic representations of the towns and states that both take place in and a balance of dark humor blended with violence. Both also involve such heinous crimes that it rocks the sleepy towns they take place in.

A great recommendation with lots of Coen competition to choose from!

JOHNNY CHAZZ: It was anticipated that your "grading" of this film would be a tad lower and I can definitely see your justification in that. Also, yes - I am a bit "chintzy" with my grading of movies especially on the high-end of the scale, but those films fitting in my top 100 are usually in the 8.5-9.5 range with a couple of 10's at the top.

I cannot agree however that “Raising Arizona” or “The Hudsucker Proxy” (as good as they were) are tailing close behind. Both of those films receive about a 7 on my scale at best, but are certainly worth watching. “Fargo” in my opinion was far, far superior to either of those and as a matter of fact, “Fargo” seems to me to be the best work of art that the Coen's ever put on screen. “Fargo” also received 7 Academy Award nominations including the ever-important Best Screenplay award of which it was well, well deserving.

Now as for the Lynch / “Twin Peaks” analogy - I completely agree - and I mean 100% with the mood, the "odd" and off-center characters, the sets, the language and the tonalities of the film combined with the score (albeit Badalamenti scores always get the nod) and the small-town feel. Great insight there, Jer - didn't really make that connection as I always look at TV and film differently (Not counting "TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME.").

That being said, “Fargo” remains a top-100 film for me and albeit not exactly a film-lover's secret, for those who have not seen it or simply did not care for it the first time-round....it is definitely worth a re-visit. This is a dark, witty suspense thriller that was so well casted and carried out on all levels. It is the type of film that I just love to re-watch at least a couple times a year always having a profound impact. I am just glad that even though we may not agree on the "rating" for this film, which we can both recommend it to our Cinema: Counterpoint audience with confidence.

Ya, ok then, enjoy this fancy type trailer thing then, ok?

Well, that ends this week's segment and let's prepare ourselves for what lies over the rainbow with Jer's topic next week. Remember to chime in with your thoughts, opinions and suggestions...as always, we'll SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY!


  1. Hello - I have written on your blog before (a film student at UTFI, Texas and am enjoying the week by week blog. Since I am taking a class this semester studying screenplays and film writing styles I wanted to say that this weeks' topic of 'Fargo' is an excelent one. I saw this movie when I was very little with my sisters and really did not understand it all that well. But, I have seen this film a few times over the last few years and it really does get better every time I watch it. The screenplay is really very good from what I can tell based on the things from what I learned in class. Thanks - GWEN, Austin Texas.

  2. Hello, Fargo is a city in North Dakota and was the perfect place fpr this story takes place.

    As in most of the Coen's films the whole point behind the movie is "MONEY". All the actors do a really terrific performance and by doing so it gives you that more realistic feeling. The Coen Brothers rock! - JESSIE from Hinesville, FLA

  3. Greetings to our readers!

    Hi Jessie, your "money" observation is an interesting obseervation! It makes sense, now that I stop and think about it! Isn't that the American dream? The persuit of the all mighty dollar? Thank you for that point of view!

    Hi Gwen! JC and I look forward to your comments...how are things going at school? You are living our dream! Keep us updated with your studies and what new topics are being discussed in class! Continued luck!


  5. @ Cinema Counterpoint: Your choice this week of Fargo is interesting since the Coen's have made so many mind-bending and intriguing films. Would both of you consider Fargo as your favorite over the likes of The Big Lwebowski or even those like Barton Fink, Millers Crossing, Raising Arizona or Blood Simple? (Seth, Wilmington NC)

  6. I remember when i saw "FARGO" in the movie theater many years ago and bought the VHS soon after. I now own it on DVD of course and have always considered it to be on of my favorite films. Just the landscape and the dialogue were enough to rank it high on my personal list. Good suggestion to all! THOMAS from Rockville, Maryland.

  7. Hello Seth from NC...your question is very interesting! I know that JC would probably still go with FARGO as his favorite Coen Bros. film...you mention so many great films (how can you say no to MILLER'S CROSSING, BARTON FINK or even RAISING ARIZONA?)I' personally did not care for THE BIG LEWBOWSKI! I know I will get some slack from it...I just didn't get it! Yet, I loved THE LADYKILLERS, BURN AFTER READING and O' BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU as unsung favs!

  8. Hello Thomas from Maryland! Yes, I had FARGO on VHS as well! I own it on DVD and I am seriously considering the Blu-Ray copy as well...it never ends! Thanks for visiting our blog!

  9. Fargo was one of my favorite all-time movies. People just seemed to not "get" the whole point of the flick. The complexities and the simplicities designed by the Coen Brothers make this their best piece of work by far and agree with critic Chazz above that 'Raiding Arizona' and 'Hudsucker' proxy were nowhere near as good.

  10. FARGO, as well as all Coen brothers' films, are films you either get or not get. I still remember the raised eyebrows from people and the Academy when NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN won Best Picture! RAISING ARIZONA and HUDSUCKER PROXY are not in the same catagory as FARGO...I will agree with you on that, but they are as equally as entertaining! Thanks for your comments!