friday night movie club

Fargo Claimed to Be a True Story, But the Coen Brothers’ Own Inventions Made It Great

William H. Macy in 1996's <em>Fargo</em>
William H. Macy in 1996’s Fargo. Photo: Working Title/Polygram/Kobal/Shutterstock

My favorite review of Fargo is by an Amazon customer who goes by Duke Wellington. Duke didn’t like the film. Hated it, actually. Thought it was “a pathetic satire on a very serious story.” Thought it was “mercilessly camped and satirized to belittle and minimalize both the events and the people who were involved.” Another example of “Hollywood’s prejudices” against the good people of America’s flyover states. He gave it one star out of five — so suffice to say, Duke wasn’t happy with his purchase.

I don’t know if the Coen brothers read reviews of their films, and I very much doubt they read Amazon reviews 20-plus years after the fact. But the reason I love that review is because I like to imagine the Coens reading it and smirking ever so slightly, smirking because even all these years later — Duke took to Amazon in 2019 — they were still fooling people. Smirking because indignant responses like this, perhaps even more than the praise and plaudits, were, I think, exactly what they were hoping to achieve.

If you’ve seen Fargo, you know where audiences might’ve been led astray: the first frame. “This is a true story,” we’re told with the unimpeachable authority of white text over a black backdrop. “The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

In interviews, the Coen brothers haven’t downright admitted that they were messing with people — “We wanted to make a movie just in the genre of a true-story movie,” Joel Coen told HuffPost a few years ago — but given their mischievous sensibilities, there’s plenty of reason to believe that’s exactly what they were doing. Why else specify that they were telling the story “exactly as it occurred”?

And yet if we’ve learned anything in the 25 years — 25 years!! — since Fargo was released, it’s that life is often much stranger than fiction. So, no, it’s not so far-fetched to think this story of a used-car salesman arranging his own wife’s kidnapping and bumbling through everything that inevitably goes wrong actually happened. Especially when you consider that the two most outrageous parts of the movie — that premise and the disposal by wood chipper of the aforementioned body — were, in fact, lifted from real news items.

On the other hand, if we’ve learned anything else these past 25 years, it’s that no one’s to be trusted, least of all a couple arch fabulists like the Coens. So while the story of Fargo is indeed plausible, the Coen-ness of it — the preponderance of fools, the way farce begets tragedy, the bits of madcap energy — should’ve been a tipoff. While my favorite of their films changes by the day, I think of Fargo as the one where they truly honed their inimitable voice. They’d done dark (Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing), and they’d done absurd (Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy), and Fargo (even more than Barton Fink) was the perfect fusion. A movie that takes a bleak view of humanity — greedy, asinine, often resembling chickens with their heads cut off — but so enthusiastically revels in our folly that it would be hard to view its authors as purely cynical.

If you haven’t seen Fargo in a while, the loudest parts of the movie are probably the ones that have remained etched in your mind: Marge Gunderson’s affable earnestness has made her the subject of countless memes; the ever-present blanket of deafening white snow is often talked about as a character in itself; and the image of the blood-spitting wood chipper is impossible to forget. Personally, having seen Fargo around the same time as Burn After Reading — admittedly, I’m not much older than Fargo — stands out as an important learning experience: Applied the right way, an ax is not just lethal but sometimes downright hilarious.

And yet each time I revisit Fargo, it’s the little details shaded in along the way that jump out as truly giving it its life: the repetitions (“Unguent,” “Kinda funny-looking”), the turns of phrase (“Blood has been shed,” “I don’t vouch for him”), and the props and wardrobe (the princess phone, the “burnt umber” Ciera). When I went back to Fargo recently, I couldn’t get over how funny it was that Jerry’s father-in-law’s business associate, Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg), is used continuously as the ultimate voice of authority. “We gotta play ball with these guys,” Jerry tells his son at one point. “You ask Stan Grossman, he’ll tell ya the same thing.”

Those little details are the biggest giveaways that Fargo could not have been “told exactly as it occurred” — that it could only be the work of the Coen brothers. And that for all of their nihilism and irreverence, the Coens actually love humanity, idiots and all. Because far from belittling the “real people” and “real events,” with these touches, the Coens make killers into clowns, heroes out of ordinary people, and they poke fun at greed, violence, misguided notions of masculinity, and utterly harebrained plots. On each rewatch, the brilliance of these smaller details comes ever more into focus, and that’s what helps make Fargo the revival-inspiring, timeless cult classic that it is. Just, ya know, don’t take it literally — or risk outing yourself as one of the fools.

Totally out-of-your-depth fool or not, join me this Friday night (@Vulture) as I regale Twitter with all the Fargo quotes and references my family and friends are tired of hearing. Thankfully, Twitter’s a written medium, so I won’t torture you with my outstanding Minnesota accent, yah. But beyond that, as has been said by Wade Gustafson, “It’s my show here. That’s that.”

Fargo at 25: The ‘True Story’ That Wasn’t