(director/writer: Joel Coen; screenwriter: Ethan Coen; cinematographer: Roger Deakins; editor: Ethan & Joel Coen; music: Carter Burwell; cast: Frances McDormand (Marge Gunderson), Steve Buscemi (Carl Showalter), Peter Stormare (Gaear Grimsrud), William Macy (Jerry Lundegaard), Harve Presnell (Wade Gustafson), Kristen Rudrud (Jean Lundegaard), John Carroll Lynch (Norm Gunderson), Steve Park (Mike Yanagita), Steven Reevis (Shep Proudfoot), Larry Brandenburg (Stan Grossman), Bain Boehlke (Mr. Mohra), James Gaulke (State Trooper); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Eric Fellner/Tim Bevan/Ethan Coen/John Cameron; Gramercy Pictures; 1996)

“One of the more entertaining films of the 1990s.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Thanks a bundle Coen brothers (“Blood Simple”/”Raising Arizona”) for this iconoclastic black comedy and crime drama that surprisingly respects its genre despite being almost surreal! It’s one of the more entertaining films of the 1990s. It’s set in Fargo and mostly in Minnesota (Minneapolis is the hometown of the Coen brothers), in the dead of winter. It tells of a botched kidnapping that will involve multiple murders. The Brothers have a field day poking fun at the Midwestern rubes but by the film’s end seem to warmly embrace them and their corny values. Frances McDormand won an Oscar for Best Actress and Ethan Coen one for Best Original Screenplay.

It opens with this written claim: “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987.” It closes with this written disclaimer: “At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” But it’s hard to take this as a real-life story, especially the way the Brothers treat their subjects.

Jerry Lundegaard (William Macy) is a financially overextended Minneapolis car salesman, who gets his Indian ex-con mechanic (Steven Reevis) to give him the name of a criminal to contact. In a Fargo bar Jerry meets as arranged his low-life contacts, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare), whom he gives a dealer’s unregistered new car to and has them kidnap his wife Jean (Kristen Rudrud) so he can extract an $80,000 ransom for her from his overbearing father-in-law Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell). Jerry can’t convince Wade to lend him money for a sweet land deal and sees this bizarre kidnapping scheme as a solution to his money and pride problems, as he plans on splitting the ransom with the kidnappers. He naturally wants this to be a non-violent kidnapping, with no harm intended to his wife. But things don’t work out as planned when at night on a dark road in folk legend Paul Bunyan’s snowy rural hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota, a state trooper stops the kidnapper’s car for not having tags and is executed by the hulking silent assassin Gaear, who then executes two in a car passing by. The unwholesome duo then hustle off the wife to a hideaway lakeside cabin in northern Minnesota. The local police chief, the pregnant Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), a slow-talking homespun gal with a level head on her shoulders and a way of talking folksy (using lingo such as “You betcha,” “Okie-Dokie,” “Yah!” and “Be there in a jif”), investigates.

When the kidnapping goes awry it sets off a series of increasingly violent acts in motion, as things get uglier and out of control; one is left both feeling shocked by the ongoing violence and amused at the absurd humor that flows as easily as the blood that’s spilled.

The acting is pitch perfect by all concerned (especially by Macy and McDormand), playing characters that are imaginatively portrayed as cartoon caricatures but giving them feeling so that the viewer can relate to their pains and situation. Throughout all the suspense, Marge and her mallard painter hubby (John Carroll Lynch) are viewed as a genuinely homey couple who mean well and are smarter than they might appear to those who are more urbane. There’s heavy doses of violence, dead-pan drop-dead humor, and horror to mix with a keen sense of an underhanded social commentary (dangers of fast food addiction, TV addiction and insatiable cravings for money and material goods). The Coen brothers know the territory they are crossing, and their populist banal heroine proves, in a serious aside, to be someone decent who has the right thinking about what’s important in life.