It’s that time of year again. We sit in the aftermath of the Academy Awards, and film journalists everywhere are preparing eloquently written rants to hurl at the “undeserved winners” of the night. This year, there has been a late swirl of bad feeling towards La La Land, with the stomach-churning awkwardness of the wrong film being crowned Best Picture winner. La La Land felt like a dead a cert to win, but grey clouds have now formed over Damien Chazelle’s sunny musical. But let’s be honest here, we all know that the Oscars and every other awards ceremony out there are based on a fairly ridiculous concept. The chance of there being several great films in a year that don’t even get a mention is extremely high. There are numerous tick-off lists of films that were robbed of the big prize on the night, and one of the most common occurrences on these lists is the Coen brothers’ masterful Fargo.
Despite picking up the awards for Original Screenplay and Lead Actress for the Coens and Frances McDormand, Fargo lost out to The English Patient for the number one honour. Were the Coens robbed? You could debate that for hours, but what is clear in my mind is that Fargo is a work of brilliance, a superb mélange of dark humour, tension and heart.
More than 20 years after their near-miss, the Coens would eventually clean up at the Oscars with No Country for Old Men, but Fargo remains a fan-favourite and to many will always be their best film. So, with everyone still reeling from Oscar night, it is perhaps worth revisiting one of the great Oscar losers and asking yourself: is this the Coen brothers’ masterwork?
Of course, filmmakers as talented as the Coens can have multiple masterpieces. The awards-hoovering No Country and prohibition drama Miller’s Crossing with its flair for language and core of betrayal and friendship, come to mind, but it is Fargo that could be considered the very definition of “Coenesque”. With so many films of such outstanding quality, perhaps the best way to pick the jewel in their crown is to find the film that best brings together all of their skills, and adds something extra special too. By that criteria, Fargo is that jewel.
As one of their darker efforts, the film shares more DNA with Joel and Ethan’s aforementioned black comedy-laced thrillers than it does with their generally less successful straight-up comedies such as Raising Arizona. As such, these snow-covered landscapes show the Minnesotan masters to be both literally and tonally where they belong. Fargo contains many of the characteristics that have gained them a cult following. It features multiple memorable characters and strong supporting turns that both entertain and disgust us. Although, the cast is lacking in Coen regulars such as Johns Polito, Goodman and Turturro. As always, the script has plenty of offbeat humour and unsurprisingly but excellently fuses this with classic thriller elements. The true greatness of the film, however, the “something extra” that elevates it to, dare I say it, Oscar-worthiness, is Frances McDormand’s pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson.
The Coen canon is often criticised for lacking the very things the Academy like to see – heart and warmth. Fargo is not. This is down to McDormand’s Marge, one of the Coens’ most memorable and best-loved characters. Her small-town Midwestern dialect is typical of the domesticity that makes the film’s violence so shocking and immoral, whilst her well-used intelligence and inherent morality help to thaw the icy landscape. She is essential to the film’s power and never is this more prevalent than in the film’s closing lines. Disillusioned with the world she lives and works in she tells the murderous Peter Stormare: “There’s more to life than a little money you know. Don’t you know that? And here you are. And it’s a beautiful day.” Having witnessed shocking acts and the failings of our world, Marge has restored our faith in humanity. By giving McDormand the Best Actress award, the Academy may have restored our faith in the Oscars.