Movies You Gotta SeeThe Midwestern perfection of ‘Fargo’
By Jalen Maki
Fargo, the 1996 black comedy crime film directed by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, takes place in the Upper Midwest – more specifically, Minnesota and North Dakota. The film focuses on several characters, one of them being Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy). Jerry makes a few key and ultimately not great choices that set in motion an increasingly chaotic and heinous chain of events, which eventually pull Brainerd Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and a pair of lowlife criminals, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), into their orbit.
I won’t dive too deep into the plot, because I believe Fargo’s story should be experienced with knowing as little about it as possible going in. But there are a few smaller facets to the film that make it feel like it’s a key Midwestern text.
It might not seem like it, but the Midwest has had a pretty decent share of representation in film, relative to its counterparts from other corners of the country. This is owed in large part to legendary director, producer and screenwriter John Hughes, whose string of films from the mid-‘80s into the early ‘90s is maybe the most insane run anyone has gone on in the history of film. Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, The Great Outdoors, Uncle Buck, and Home Alone all take place in the Midwest. However, most of these movies admittedly don’t “feel” particularly Midwestern, at least in comparison to Fargo; they just happen to be set somewhere like a Chicago suburb.
Meanwhile, watching Fargo feels like I am catching a glimpse into the lives of people who could reasonably be living down the street from me, and the chief contributing factor to this is the character’s accents.
The dead-on folksy-ness of its Midwest-speak stands out among myriad reasons why Fargo is excellent. I suspect the Coen brothers intentionally wrote the script in a way that would make the character’s pronunciations and intonations of words catch the viewer’s ear. They dial up all the hokey hits: Yah; oh yah; yah, no; ya know?; heck yah; I tell ya what; you betcha; oh for Pete’s sake. They’re all there. Also among the highlights are several instances in which a man is referred to as a “fella.” And, if he’s large in stature, you bet he’s a “big fella.”
The Coens’ injection of the characters’ down-home dialects into deeply distressing situations goes a long way in selling Fargo’s dark humor. Among my favorite scenes involves Marge and fellow cop Lou investigating the scene of a crime that had taken place along a wind-whipped and salt-stained stretch of highway the night before. Marge describes to Lou her interpretation of what she believes happened and wraps up her breakdown by describing a multiple-homicide as “this execution type-deal,” which sounds like something your middle school friend’s great-aunt would declare from behind a newspaper, shocked by a front-page horror story.
The accent is also, to me, what really drives home the idea of “Midwest nice,” and it’s displayed throughout Fargo. Even with his life quite literally falling apart around him, Jerry tries his hardest to maintain his kind, Average Joe disposition. His half-baked, boneheaded scheme could catastrophically melt down at any moment, almost certainly destroying everything he holds dear, yet the last thing he wants to do is be rude. A true Midwesterner!
I would like to add a disclaimer here: I am aware that the Coens ratcheted up the accents a little, and not all Midwesterners sound like the characters in Fargo. I think it’s safe to assume this is the case for films set in other parts of the United States. I mean, there’s no way every single Bostonian sounds like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, right? But hey, for what the filmmakers were going for in their respective movies – to immerse the audience in the setting – they were necessary exaggerations.
Also among the brilliant choices made by the Coens was to have the tale take place in the dead of winter. There have been many films in which Old Man Winter reigns supreme, but Fargo captures the season’s bleak dreariness which such detail and accuracy it could reasonably elicit a negative emotional response from those who’ve experienced Jack Frost’s worst. There’s a scene in which a beleaguered Jerry trudges across an empty, snow-covered parking lot to his car. The shot, taken from above, is absolutely tremendous, showing nothing but vast whiteness broken up by only a few trees, some light posts, Jerry’s footprints and his vehicle. Jerry, who is unequivocally Going Through It at this juncture in his life, arrives at his car to find the windshield iced over; his subsequent freakout while scraping away the ice is exceedingly relatable. In the face of the harsh and relentless awfulness of winter, even the smallest problems seem at least 30% more severe; going through a DEFCON 1-level event like Jerry’s while it’s also 15-below and windy would be all but unbearable.
The Coens and company paid special attention to other details peppered throughout the film. The interior design is impeccable; I think I’ve seen the Lundegaards’ kitchen cabinets in at least four different homes in my lifetime. Everyone is dressed like they’re straight out of a mid-‘90s family photo album. The names in the movie sound like the Coens pulled them from a Northwoods phonebook – there’s a nonzero chance I’ve had a beer with a Wade Gustafson or a Norm Gunderson in a tavern once or twice.
Additional disclaimer: I do not want to misrepresent Fargo as simply a lighthearted, cozy tale. I cannot stress enough that this is not a movie where you gather the kids around the TV, pop in the DVD (do people still do this?), make some popcorn and share a collective laugh or two. The film features a pretty substantial amount of vulgarity, the culmination of its violence involves an unlucky fellow and a gas-powered yard cleanup tool. While most of Fargo’s characters are Midwest nice, the story itself, on the whole, is not. Despite this, does Fargo still feel like home? You betcha.
Follow Jalen on Letterboxd at www.letterboxd.com/jalenmaki182/ to see what he’s been watching, and read more at www.medium.com/@jalenmaki.