A desperate businessman hires two hoods to kidnap his wife, in order to grab the ransom money for himself. However, when small-town sherrif Marge Gunderson starts to investigate, his carefully laid plan goes horribly wrong.
After the scraper-sized flop that was The Hudsucker Proxy (although, let it be known, it remains a work of genius) the Coen brothers return to territory previously found fertile. Put simply, Fargo is Blood Simple with laughs and a heck of a lot of snow. But Fargo is far from simple, it is a deliciously convoluted tale of crime, punishment and a cowardly used-car salesman set in a white-out snowscape of Minnesota, written and directed with the verve, painstaking nuance and outrageously black humour that have become the mainstay of a Coen movie.
The story is based on truth, or in Coen parlance "real-life". It opens in Fargo, a hick-town, where in a bar fogged with cigarette smoke, desperate, cash-strapped car dealer Jerry Lundegaard (Macy) hires a misbegotten duo of thugs (Buscemi and Stormare) to kidnap his wife. He can then cajole her loaded pop (Harve Presnell) to stump up the ransom and make a killing. The problem is, a killing is exactly what is made. Mishap follows mess-up into a brilliantly plotted farce of lies, confusion and hilarity.
This is the Coens' paean to the middle-America of their youth, and, thanks to McDormand's heavily pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson, has the most heart of any of their films. With big-hearted motherliness and a sharp nose for wrong-doing, she traces the inept brigands and fraught Lundegaard to a bloody conclusion. The Coens have such an ear and eye for the myriad quirks of human life that throughout Fargo's movie-sized absurdity - events take an increasingly corpse-strewn spin out of control - there is a constant sense of plausibility to it all.
Script-wise it's an expected - by Coen reputation - joy, with not a cliche nor clunker to be had and an irrepressible playfulness with language, especially the spittle-spilling Scandinavian originated names of the region. Acting-wise, too, it hums with class. Buscemi does his finest rendition of the put-upon, whining geek yet, Stomare manages to elicit pure menace with scattered grunts and stares, and McDormand's chirruping, waddling Marge - a true original - is a career best.
Director Joel Coen recalls Blood Simple's expansiveness in a solemn world of endless snow and from Marge's unfortunate class reunion to the Psycho reference in the kidnap scene mixes the real with the oddball without showing the joins.
The Coens are still a million miles from Hollywood staple, but with Fargo's comic felicity, gun-packing coolness and ability to come up with the totally unexpected, they maintain their place among America's most important filmmakers. Excellent.