When Fargo was released 20 years ago, its subsequent success would have seemed unlikely, even impossible. The Coen brothers’ three previous films had all failed at the box office, despite receiving glowing reviews. On its surface the film would seem too dark and too violent to ever attract audiences, another flop in the making. But Fargo surpassed all expectations, becoming one of the Coens’ most successful films. More importantly, it represents their greatest artistic achievement. Joel and Ethan Coen have created many great films since Fargo, but none have managed to reach that same pinnacle.
Fargo has some of the grandest themes of any Coen brothers film. It concerns itself with nothing short of the nature of evil, and it details the ways in which weak people can be seduced by its charms. Jerry Lundegaard, played by the perennially underrated William H. Macy, is the weak man. The movie never actually makes Lundegaard’s financial situation clear: does he need money to cover debts, or does his greed entice him to break free of his middle class life? Regardless, Lundegaard tries to improve his situation through various means, legal and not. He secures a bogus loan on cars that don’t exist, then fails to get funding from his wealthy father-in-law to purchase a piece of land.
Lundegaard crosses an invisible line when he hires two hitmen to kidnap his wife, intending for his father-in-law to pay a large ransom. Lundegaard will pocket most of the money, then reward the hitmen with a paltry sum and a new burnt umber Sierra Oldsmobile. The incessant, over-caffeinated voice of the hitmen is Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi), and the mostly silent psychopath of the duo is Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare, a Swedish actor who played Hamlet onstage for Ingmar Bergman). Buscemi plays a bumbling comic figure, but Stormare is the truly evil figure. . .
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