"Fargo" was one of the most-honored and best-reviewed films of 1996. It racked up seven Academy Award nominations (and two wins) and was named the year's best movie by the New York Film Critics Circle. Respected critic Roger Ebert called it "one of the best films I've ever seen."
Today, movie fans still love the Coen brothers' film. It ranks No. 101 on the Internet Movie Database's all-time rankings. "Fargo" has earned its title as the Great Brainerd Movie.
The Coen brothers' "Fargo" was released to positive reviews on March 8, 1996.
"Fargo" wasn't filmed in Brainerd - or in its titular location, for that matter - but St. Louis Park natives Joel and Ethan Coen deserve credit for not only setting a movie here, but setting it in the dead of winter.
To argue that "Fargo's" Brainerd doesn't feel like the real Brainerd is to miss the point. There's no question the film has a sense of place, even if that place is the nothingness of rural Bathgate, N.D. The film's menacing Paul Bunyan statue isn't the real one, but it certainly fits the dark mood more than our friendly looking lumberjack. The truisms of living up north are right there on screen: Any Brainerdite can relate to Jerry Lundegaard scraping his truck's ice-caked windshield in frustration.
Besides, in not being filmed on location, "Fargo" is in good company. "Mallrats" is set in New Jersey, but it was filmed in Eden Prairie; the location sleight of hand doesn't make the comedy any less funny. I loved all the Roswellian touches of TV's "Roswell" and didn't care one bit that it was shot entirely in and around Hollywood. The excellent "X-Files" explored mysteries all over the United States, and you'd hardly guess it was shot in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The Coens employed creative license by using real city names to evoke a mood for viewers who have never been to this neck of the woods. Minneapolis is a cold hub; Brainerd is a barren backwater; Fargo, N.D., is the gateway to the end of the Earth; and Bismarck, N.D., where Lundegaard flees, actually is the end of the Earth. Go west from there and you've entered hell itself. It's not reality, but it's a great metaphor.
Is "Fargo," which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, deserving of its praise? Or is it overrated?
Results of a Dispatch interactive poll at www.brainerddispatch.com are mixed so far, with six votes for each side (and one voter claiming never to have seen "Fargo"). There's still time to cast your vote and comment on the film that put Brainerd on the national map.
If you'd like to read more about "Fargo," check out the History portion of www.brainerddispatch.com.
Those accents and colloquialisms ("You betcha," "yer darn tootin'," "heckuva deal," "for Pete's sake," "yaaaaah") might be exaggerated, but they're also laugh-out-loud funny. You can't beat the scene with the hookers from Chaska and Le Sueur ("Well, White Bear Lake originally - go Bears") and their description of Steve Buscemi's character as "funny looking. Even more than most people."
To argue that it's all a mean jab against Minnesotans is to again miss the point, as director Joel Coen explained in a March 1996 Associated Press story: "You can laugh at a friend or yourself even ... at behavior that is funny. But that doesn't mean that you're condescending."
Frances McDormand's Oscar-winning portrayal of Brainerd Police Chief Marge Gunderson is the opposite of condescending. Ebert described McDormand's performance as "true in every individual moment." Gary Susman of the Boston Phoenix wrote that Marge is "the first movie cop in about 45 years who's not neurotic, tortured, cynical, scarred or tainted by her brushes with evil." Premiere Magazine ranked Marge as the 27th best movie character ever (one spot behind E.T. and three spots ahead of King Kong).
The Coen brothers' script is consistently funny, and the lines are expertly delivered by McDormand, Buscemi and William H. Macy. As wild and unpredictable as the plot is, it seems like this is how it might really go down: Lundegaard is unable to call off the kidnapping. Not because the kidnappers are crazy, not because they are double-crossing him and not because they got a better deal. It's simply because Lundegaard doesn't know the kidnappers' phone number.
Contrasting the comedy, the violence in "Fargo" is undeniably effective. In the DVD documentary "Minnesota Nice," the Coens say the film is partly a commentary on the potential for violence in repressed, polite societies. Even if you nodded in agreement when Marge concluded after one glance at the crime scene that the killers couldn't be from Brainerd, take heart that there are actually no violent locals in "Fargo." Their origins are unexplained, but kidnappers Gaear and Carl don't seem to be Fargoans or Minnesotans - Gaear had never been to the Twin Cities and Carl doesn't have the accent.
Introducing the film as "based on a true story" - when it's actually not - cleverly pushes the envelope of what you can get away with in a film. It's kind of hilarious that the AP continually reported that "Fargo" was based on a true story and that Ebert wrote, "I have no doubt that events something like this really did take place in Minnesota in 1987." It shows that while the Coens are serious, artistic filmmakers, they don't take any of it too seriously.
"Fargo" was a groundbreaking film when it came out, and 10 years later, there's still nothing like it.
JOHN HANSEN, entertainment editor, can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5863.