It was considered one of the best (and grimmest) movies of the late 20th century, doncha know.
Released in 1996, Ethan and Joel Coen's film Fargo is a dramedy as dark and cold as the North Woods winter in which it takes place. It's filled with quirky characters, dark deeds and a now-infamous wood chipper. It used its unlikely "true" story and strange, murderous charm to gain a place on the National Film Registry and secure a couple of Oscars.
Now the Coens are gunning for a few matching Emmys.
The brothers serve as executive producers for FX's limited-run television series Fargo—a show that continues the original's story in some senses but shares neither characters nor very many plot points. It does ladle thickly the movie's mood and mire.
The story's gears wheeze into motion when Lester Nygaard, a mousy insurance salesman, runs into Sam Hess, a guy who relentlessly bullied Lester in high school. When Sam makes a move to punch Lester again, Lester flinches right into a window—resulting in a badly banged up nose. When he goes to a Bemidji (Minn.) hospital to get his beak checked out, he meets mysterious traveler Lorne Malvo, who tells him the best way to take care of a problem is to kill it.
"Your problem is you've spent your whole life thinking there are rules," he says. "There aren't. We used to be gorillas."
Soon thereafter, Bemidji's police force notices a surge in homicides: Sam. Lester's wife, Pearl. Police Chief Vern Thurman. The bodies pile up like Jell-O deserts at a church potluck, and soon Deputy Molly Solverson and Officer Gus Grimly are having to work overtime just to keep up.
The show, we're told, is (just like the movie) based on a "true story," which seems about as likely as Lester escaping the season unscathed. Sort of like viewers. This melancholy series does like to sit and brood for stretches, but when it gets moving, it descends with the fury of a Midwestern storm. People die in horrible ways, and not just in wood chippers. Blood drips, gurgles and spews. S-words and other vulgarities are sprinkled on the snow right along with the blood. And sex can be problematic too—if not visually, at least topically. (In one episode, a character offers a play-by-play monologue on bestiality.)
And then there's that über-depressing undercurrent the Coens are so well known for, migrating as they do from quirkily bleak to bleakly quirky, depending on the project. In the midst of that? God. But not in the way you might like. The Coens have never been afraid to talk about God, sometimes as a benevolent, unpredictable player (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), sometimes as a willfully distant force in a cold, cold universe (No Country for Old Men), sometimes as a wrathful and vindictive meddler (A Serious Man). Those who earnestly seek Him are often rewarded with Old Testament-level, Job-like horrors.
Fargo falls right in line.
Here we meet Stavros Milos, the "supermarket king of Minnesota." His rise to the top (we learn in flashback) was launched when, desperate for cash, he discovered a satchel full of it (the very suitcase buried in the original movie, incidentally). He takes it for what it seems to be—a miracle—and converts to Christianity.
Years later, in an effort to extort money from Stavros, Malvo sends what appear to be biblical plagues on the house of Milos. He fills the man's plumbing with pig's blood and kills his dog. Eventually Stavros decides to give in to his blackmailer's demands. God, he believes, wills it.
But in the last hour, Stavros changes his mind again and buries a suitcase full of money in the exact place he uncovered it years earlier. He feels a weight come off him, as if God has forgiven him. On the drive home, though, he discovers that his son and bodyguard were killed in a highway accident—when fish rained down on them.
In Fargo, men used to be gorillas and laws are fairy tales. God is an inscrutable and vengeful spirit. Weak men do unspeakable things as a pair of unsung law officers struggle to make sense of it.
And to all of that, while shivering in the cold and dark, Fargo asks us to laugh—laugh in the way that men do when there is no hope.
The episode's title refers to a philosophical paradox: A hungry and thirsty donkey, placed an equal distance between food and water, dies—paralyzed by indecision. And, indeed, characters who hesitate are punished here. "Kill or be killed," a crime boss declares.
Lester sneaks out of a hospital, steals a car, breaks into his brother's house and plants incriminating evidence there—the hammer he used to kill Pearl, pictures of her and a pair of her panties. He jams a handgun into his young nephew's backpack.
Malvo knocks one-time partner Chumph unconscious, duct tapes him to a piece of exercise equipment, sticks an unloaded shotgun in the man's hand and then shoots randomly (with another gun) into the street. Police descend on the site and eventually, mistakenly, kill the helpless Chumph. (We see both blood and trauma as slugs slam into his body.) Malvo later cuts his own hand, intentionally leaving behind a trail of blood. And another of Malvo's victims dies gruesomely, blood burbling, as the show's prime villain stabs him, twists the knife and slashes his throat.
We witness a couple of car crashes, more shootings and more bloody bodies. Fish rain from the sky, leaving their own blood and guts all over everything. God's name is merged with "d‑‑n" a couple of times. Stavros evokes the Lord's name to get out of paying at a parking garage. One s-word, two more uses of "d‑‑n" and other misuse of God's name round out the cursing. Thugs order mai tais.