Snow. Lots and lots of snow. This how Joel and Ethan Coen’s Midwestern masterpiece, Fargo, begins. At first, the only thing we can see is a blinding field of white. Then, suddenly, we begin to make out the outline of a bird flying in front of us and then a car speeding down the road. This snowy opening is probably the most apt metaphor for what it is like to watch Fargo. Just like the snow, the film itself envelops the audience in a kind of haze while at the same time revealing something unexpected out of this snowy haze.
What do I mean by this? Well, first of all, I just lied to you. What I described above is not how Fargo begins. Instead, Fargo begins with a disclaimer that states: “THIS IS A TRUE STORY. 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”. Here’s the thing though, that’s a lie too. Fargo is not based on a true story and the events depicted did not happen in Minnesota in 1987. There are bits and pieces of the narrative that are borrowed from multiple real crimes that occurred in multiple places in multiple decades, but that is all. From the very beginning, actually from before the very beginning of the film, Fargo is blurring the line between fiction and reality. It is casting a haze over us. It is playing a trick on us because it wants us to be disoriented. So many people have fallen for this disclaimer and taken it for fact that there is now a local Minnesota superstition that states that there will be a bad end to anyone who comes searching for the left behind suitcase full of cash depicted in Fargo. This legend has become so widespread, that the Alamo even showed a film based on it a few years ago - Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. The Coen Brothers have stated that they intentionally included the True Story disclaimer because they wanted the audience members to more readily suspend their disbelief. They didn’t want the audience to question the believability of the events that occur. They wanted them to just assume that they happened. This way, instead of thinking that it is impossible for three people to so thoroughly bungle a crime and to produce so many unexpected and bloody side effects as a result, the audience simply relates to the mundanity of the scheme and how completely ordinary all of the characters seem.
This disclaimer isn’t the only time Fargo gives a false impression and blurs the line between fiction and reality though. In the credits, there is person named Roderick Jaynes listed as editor of the film. This is false. The Coen Brothers edited the film. Further, many people believe that Prince plays the dead body in the field because in the closing credits, this actor is credited with the sign Prince employed to designate himself; however, this was an inside joke/homage to Prince, who is from Minnesota. A storyboard artist named J. Todd Anderson is the actual person who plays the dead body in the field. Further, the famous Paul Bunyan statue that serves as a welcome sign as one enters Brainerd doesn’t actually exist. There is a Paul Bunyan amusement park on the outskirts of Brainerd that has a Paul Bunyan statue, but there is not a Paul Bunyan welcome sign at either location. Additionally, the title of the film itself is a sort of lie. No scenes were shot in Fargo and only the brief meeting between Jerry Lundegaard, Carl Showalter, and Gaear Grimsrud in the bar is set there. All of the other action takes place in Minnesota, which is why the accent everyone uses in the film has come to be called, “Minnesota Nice”. In fact the only connection the film has to Fargo, ND is that Kristin Rudrud, the actress who plays Jean Lundegaard, is from Fargo. The only reason the Coen Brothers decided to title the film “Fargo” is because they thought it sounded better than “Brainerd”, the principle setting of the film.
All of this might seem like a betrayal on the part of the Coen Brothers. It might make us feel like we are being deceived by their falsehoods; but I think it is one of the things that makes this film such a masterpiece and one of the reasons it was added to the National Film Registry in 2006. These falsehoods that the Coen Brothers expose us to make us confront the line between fiction and reality. When we realize that we have been led to believe one thing when the opposite is true, we are forced to question why we believed in the falsehoods in the first place. We are forced to confront why we were so comfortable believing the lie and to recognize that our perceptions of the world around us are built upon assumptions that might be false. For me, this is what separates Fargo from other dark comedy crime thrillers: it’s not only a really well constructed film with a great narrative and a great cast (William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand). It also implicates us in the narrative and asks us to examine ourselves, our assumptions, and our very experience of watching the film.
Come see Fargo at the Alamo Theatre on Sunday, November 20, at 6pm. It is very much rated R. There is lots of blood, violence, and language, so don’t bring the kids unless they are old enough to handle the adult themes and language. YOU should definitely be there though because it’s not only an incredible, extremely enjoyable film that we know you will like, it’s also the last film in the “A Century of Movies at the Alamo” series. Come see one before it’s gone.