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Fargo review – a yahsterpiece of the highest order

Is the Coens' chilly neo-noir about a simple kidnapping plot gone very wrong still as inspired as it was back in 1996? You betcha!

Does any movie so perfectly locate the sweet spot as to whatever it is the Coens do more than their 1996 masterpiece (or is that a “yahsterpiece”?) Fargo, a picture as funny as it is disturbing, as enigmatic as it is stark, as gripping as it is influential? It's these juxtapositions that have kept Fargo feeling fresh for so long, marking it out as a real original, a crowning achievement of 90s cinema. Now, Fargo is back to mark its 25th anniversary, a chance to watch the convoluted chaos of its chilly mystery play out on the biggest screen possible.

Fargo unfolds against the blinding whiteness of snow-covered North Dakota, a blank canvas upon which the blood of its “homespun murder story” is to memorably spill. Right from the get-go, Carter Burwell's unforgettable score, channelling the region's Germanic roots, keys us into the idea that we're watching a kind of modern fable play out – then, as a vehicle eases into view, we hear the rush of the orchestra, the tale suddenly imbued with a sense of the operatic. One could make the argument that the music is at odds with the story being told, too grand and weighty; it's also perfect. And here is where Fargo's genius lies: in the contrasting of tones, the balance between lightness and darkness, the inspired fusion of seemingly incompatible elements.

The narrative, as in much of the Coens' work, essentially stems from a series of accidents. Hapless loser of a car salesman Jerry Lundergaard (a career-best William H. Macy) thinks he's come up with the perfect scheme: to hire a couple of thugs to “kidnap” his wife so that he can blackmail his rich father-in-law for the ransom. Unfortunately, he's chosen the world's most careless criminal duo to carry out the task, a pair of bickering, sociopathic small-timers, played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare. When they mistakenly botch the job by killing three people, a battle of the witless ensues, a menagerie of misunderstandings between an increasing number of parties.

Everyone in the cast brings their A-game, especially Macy, whose portrait of patheticness is Hall of Fame great, and Buscemi, whose weasel-like, snivelling shtick has never been so abhorrent. But it is of course Frances McDormand who shines brightest, her pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson emerging as one of the most unlikely and likeable cinema heroes. Her blend of Midwestern politeness (“You betcha!”) and a genuine knack for detective work embodies the flip sides of Fargo that is so crucial to its success – a coating of warm hospitality and humour concealing something far more serious beneath the surface.

The now infamous scene in which Marge meets up for a platonic reunion with an old school friend named Mike Yanagita, who breaks down at the table and later turns out to be not quite who he seems, is perfectly representative of the Coens' singular magic. Many have questioned the use of this scene  – but of course, it's this telling encounter that signals something in Marge, awakens her instincts and causes her to go back and check on Jerry's story one last time. The movie doesn't implicitly tell us that's what happens, but the film wouldn't be quite the same without it being present. Its purpose is felt by the audience, knowingly or not.

Elsewhere, the drum-tight script is scattered with brilliant little touches and observations, not a wasted beat in sight. Characters who pop up for just a scene or two feel like they've been plucked from a documentary about the region. And still, the Coens have time to paint a totally unironic portrait of romance between Marge and husband Norm (John Caroll Lynch). The final image of the film, with the pair tucked up in bed, musing on Norm's recent success in an amateur art contest, is one of the loveliest in cinema. To think: only a few scenes earlier, a man had been stuffed headfirst into a wood chipper…

Fargo is one of those rare films that offers the same level of watchability and involvement no matter how many times you've seen it. 25 years down the line, it has lost none of its impact or its ability to entertain, every scene encapsulating its directors' unique and precise blend of wit and craftsmanship. They have made great, great work since, these brothers – but perhaps nothing greater than Fargo.

Fargo is now on re-release in UK cinemas.

Where to watch

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