Fargo and Fargo: The Style of the Coen Brothers

When FX first announced the Fargo miniseries, I was interested, but skeptical.  Fargo (1996) is a pretty unique film even by Coen Brothers standards.  The Coens have certainly used weather effects to their advantage and infused their films with a delicate balance of violence and dark comedy – but Fargo takes these elements to their creative peak.  It isn’t unique in the Coen’s filmography because it contains any element of particular Coen style – it’s unique because it masters all of them.

Additionally, Fargo the movie is heavily driven by the performances of its cast.  Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, and Steve Buscemi each give performances ranked among their very best, which is high praise considering the accomplishments of these three actors.  Any adaptation of the film, especially a “tone” adaptation, would have to be buoyed by equally strong performances.

Let’s explore each element of the movie’s style and how the TV show has handled those elements so far.

Acting and Accents

Fortunately, the first season of Fargo had an excellent cast.  After one episode, the second season seems up to the task as well.  That being said, the variety of circumstances that lead to great casting are really a tale of inside-Hollywood baseball that only a select few will really get to know about.

That isn’t to say that casting this project was easy, I doubt it was.  Even the some of the portrayals of Upper Midwesterners in the movie are bit off-base.  William H. Macy is a legend and his performance in the movie is fantastic – except for the fact that people in the Twin Cities typically don’t speak with such heavy accents.

Likewise, Martin Freeman has a very distinct, very English way of speaking.  Unfortunately this means that his Northern Minnesota accent sounds a bit like a Kermit the Frog impression.  Good performance otherwise, but the accent holds it back a little.

So far the second season seems to have toned down the accents.  I think that’s a good decision.  Part of the movie’s quirkiness and charm were the accents, but if the TV show is going to keep telling murder tales of the frozen north, it is going to have to dispense with some of the trappings of the movie that didn’t really work in the first season of the show.

Weather Effects

The Coen Brothers love utilizing weather effects in their films, and season one of Fargo not only paid homage to that, but surpassed the movie in its use of weather.

The movie takes full advantage of the frigid winters of the Upper Midwest to set its tone.  The best example is the fateful traffic stop that causes Marge Gunderson to get out of bed in the middle of the night.  The brutal murder scene contrasts with the snow-covered field.  When before there was a peaceful winter landscape there is now a window into the abyss.

The first season of the show took that a step further.  It similarly uses white landscapes and snow-covered trees as a peaceful contrast to the show’s brutal violence, but takes that a step further.  The shootout in blizzard conditions halfway through the season resembles the fog scenes in Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) as much as it does any of the Coen Brothers’ movies – paying homage to three legendary filmmakers.

Dark Comedy and Brutal Violence

Fargo is one of the Coen Brothers’ funniest movies, mostly thanks to the talents of its phenomenal cast and its fantastic writing.  Who can forget the part where Marge Gunderson interviews the most awkward hookers in all the land?  Only the people who remember mostly the wood-chipper scene – yikes.

The first season of Fargo has its share of dark comedy.  A few of the characters are kind of dimwits, like Bob Odenkirk’s well-meaning Chief Bill Oswalt – which is at once frustrating and hilarious.  Overall, the movie is funnier than the series, but a two-hour movie needs more comic relief to keep the audience’s attention than an hour-long show does (at least in my opinion).

There’s no wood-chipper in season one of Fargo.  There is, however, Billy Bob Thornton’s monstrous Malvo – a villain of the first-rate.  So far, there’s no one quite so terrifying in season two, but the season is young.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe