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On March 8, 1996, the Coen brothers unleashed Fargo in limited theaters stateside. The film went on to earn seven nominations at the 69th Academy Awards, claiming honors for actress Frances McDormand and best original screenplay. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
A small-scale, character-driven gem compared to their last ambitious-but-disappointing production, The Hudsucker Proxy, the Coen Brothers’ Fargo is set in the filmmakers’ home state of Minnesota and winningly presents a 1987 true-crime story with an engrossing, unpredictable plot and fascinating characters.
Humorous and realistic, visually stunning and featuring great performances from an eclectic cast, the Gramercy Pictures release should do well in major markets and win the uniquely talented filmmakers a few new fans. Its subsequent release on video will make it one of the most talked-about films of the year.
William Macy is terrific as Jerry Lundegaard, a naive-but-determined Minneapolis car salesman who tries to solve his debt problems by hiring two lowlifes (Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrud). Her father (Harve Presnell), a wealthy businessman and wily investor with the cash to ransom her back, suspects nothing, even when things go terribly wrong.
Locales have been changed and other liberties taken, but the crazy way the simple kidnapping plan goes haywire is too amazing to not be real. The characters are all strange and contradictory, none more so than unflappable, pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). When this delightfully warm and authoritative character enters the film, after the needless slaying of three people on a cold, barren highway in the middle of the night, Fargo evolves into something more than a Blood Simple-like exercise in contemporary noir.
Buscemi and Stormare (Damage) are hilarious and scary as the small-time hoods who are not impressed with their employer and yet make the situation worse at every opportunity. What starts out as ironic and humorous becomes volatile and deadly. The violence is realistically bloody but bursts into the story in only a few sequences.
The film’s offbeat mood is centered in the dialect and characterizations of Scandinavian-descended Minnesotans. Led by the exceedingly cheerful and courteous Marge, the forces of reason close in on Jerry and the kidnappers in a smashing conclusion. McDormand is excellent and has a lot of fun with her tenacious and competent character, who is dedicated to duty and her sweet, supportive husband (John Carroll Lynch).
Director Joel Coen, who co-wrote the screenplay with brother Ethan, finds many inventive ways to bring the landscape into the story, using snowbound locales and claustrophobic interiors in a well-realized visual scheme. Roger Deakins‘ cinematography is superb and Carter Burwell’s magnificent score is a wealth of folksy melodies and tragic themes. — David Hunter, originally published on Feb. 12, 1996
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