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Hi! We’re Mark and Nitish, and we (like most of you, we hope) are practicing social distancing to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. We recognize that this is a super stressful time for a lot of people and that many of you are being harmed by the virus in one way or another. So, we thought we’d do something that would hopefully lighten the mood. We are going to be watching and reviewing movies available on streaming platforms. Our column will be published every Wednesday and Friday, and we plan on reviewing one movie a day. That makes things easier for us procrastinators! We hope that you can watch along, send us your thoughts and recommend movies that you like or want us to watch. Best of luck to all of you in these trying times!
Fargo (Released in 1996; watched by us on Oct. 22, 2020)
A crime film by Joel and Ethan Coen. We watched it on Netflix!
There are not a whole lot of fancy things I can say about “Fargo.” This movie did not make me question genre constructs, nor was I forced at any point to ponder the deeper aspects of life (though I do worry that the smalltown Minnesota accent will be forever ingrained into my brain).
And let me be clear, dear reader, this is far from a bad thing. “Fargo” is a very good crime thriller flick that thrives off its simplicity. It is one of those simple, blessed movies that, by reading the premise, you will probably know whether or not you will like. This makes my job a whole lot easier.
Based on a true story, “Fargo” follows an unusual string of homicides — and an even stranger conspiracy — that occurs in a small town in Minnesota. It all starts with a pathetic car salesman named Jerry. He has financial troubles, so he naturally decides to arrange a deal with two thugs — they will kidnap his wife in order to demand a considerable ransom from his wealthy father-in-law. Who hasn’t been there before, am I right? Then, we follow two branching storylines: the criminals, who gradually begin to take more and more lives, and pregnant police chief, Marge, who investigates the resulting homicides.
There are not many movies that take place in the humbler, wintery and — some might remark — unremarkable American midwest, so “Fargo” already stands out through setting alone. But this movie does us one better. By contrasting the happy-go-lucky image outsiders might impose on the midwest with this extraordinarily bloody sequence of events (and the many depraved criminals that have triggered it), you get a simple narrative that feels so tonally distinct from its many genre peers.
I do believe the filmmakers knew full well what they were doing. “Fargo” chooses to lean into the assumptions I believe a large portion of the audience base might have imposed onto the midwest.
The accents are as saturated as a packet of Caprisun, the dialogue can be rather goofy (even when not played for laughs) and there is a repetition of some generic phrases like “yah” and “you betcha” that keep calling into mind the softness, the politeness and the Canadian-lite-ness that the snooty LA media industry had — intentionally or not — tacked on to the population. This makes things all the more unsettling when we see witnesses shot, criminals cuss like they are in a Scorsese flick and bodies fed into wood chippers. It is like finding out your fun, goofy, sweater-vest-wearing uncle was caught murdering your aunt for the insurance.
But, while there is tension, this tonal dichotomy naturally leads to a rather triumphant conclusion. By the movie’s end, our most violent felon is caught by Marge, and she proceeds to lecture him like a disappointed mother. It is kind of funny, but highly resonant regardless. Our protagonist, Marge, is the very definition of a gentle expecting mother, usually cast in the sidelines in these types of films. Yet she has become one of cinema’s most engaging and awesome leads specifically because of these very same kindly and feminine traits. The very fact that she can watch somebody feed his partner into a woodchipper, shoot him in the leg, then gently chastise him like a schoolkid who just threw a rock at Suzan from third grade says a lot about her character.
Dear reader, you cannot go wrong choosing “Fargo” for movie night. It is one of the quintessential — and most surprisingly optimistic — crime thrillers that will simultaneously warm your heart and chill you to the bone. THIS, Nitish, is a feel-good family flick.
Well… ok, not family flick, there was that whole wood chipper thing, but you get it.
Well, well, well. I take no small amount of pride that I’ve been able to infect the normally buoyant Mark with my uninspired teenage edginess to the point that he says that a movie about a grisly series of murders is a feel-good family flick. This column has clearly been a success.
Anyways, “Fargo” is a wonderful movie. I agree with Mark that it’s sort of hard to accurately describe the appeal of this movie. The tone is a bit bizarre. There are some beautifully composed shots, but a lot of the cinematography is just solid. The story is a strange, sort of random, tale about a botched kidnapping con job. But somehow, “Fargo” is more than the sum of its parts.
“Fargo” is such an astoundingly particular film that it’s difficult to write this review. It’s difficult to think of another murder mystery movie where the story is put on hold so that the lead detective can resist the awkward advances of an old friend who’s desperately lonely after the death of his wife. “Fargo” is ambitious in the almost total lack of ambition put on the frame. One of my favorite shots comes from this moment where the lead detective Marge (played perfectly by Frances McDormand) catches her breath to deal with her morning sickness and there’s a dead body framed in the background. In another brief conversation, she is informed that the old friend wasn’t actually married and that he’s instead dealing with some mental health issues. Why? I have no idea. It’s never mentioned again.
“Fargo” seems to be going out of its way to make every aspect of this movie seem like this polite normalcy. A citizen gives a brief interview on how he heard someone saying that they were going to kill a man, and then lightly remarks on the weather. This artificial calm is thrown into sharp relief by the fact that all the actors use these Minnesota-isms, with the ever-present “oh jeez.”
There are a lot of small things the Coen brothers do right: Everybody is characterized delightfully clearly. You see someone for a few minutes and you feel as though you’ve lived your entire life with them. The dialogue has this luxuriously lazy pace to it. There are all these small little moments of casual conversation between characters that make the film feel deeply grounded. But ultimately, the thing that’s so remarkable about “Fargo” is how unremarkable it makes itself. The Coen brothers have stripped away all the frills and fuss of other films and have instead made the crime and violence seem like this deeply natural, normal thing. It just sorta happens. The people who are living just go back to their lives. The people who are dead, or wood-chipped, just stay dead. It’s bizarre, but it works.
I don’t know what this accomplishes exactly. But it’s amazing, warmly funny (somehow!) and it feels like you’ve just sat down in an old-fashioned diner and watched cars go by. I walk away from this film and on one hand I think I’ve watched a happy little slice-of-life documentary about a few Minnesotans. On the other hand, I think I’ve watched a brutal tragedy about greed and arrogance. It might not make sense how those two meld together, but they do. And that’s the magic of “Fargo,” folks. You should check it out.
Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu.