How great would it be if that suitcase was full of french fried taters and mustard?
I decided I wanted to write scripts for a living on a rainy weekend when I was in 8th grade. Mom was out of town on a business trip, which left Dad and I to our own devices, so naturally he did what any loving father would do for his son and rented a couple of R-rated movies that Mom probably wouldn’t have wanted me to watch. One was the deeply unsettling 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the other was Fargo.
Had Dad not rented it, I probably wouldn’t have watched Fargo on my own. I’ve written before about the stacks of action movies I would bring home from the video store when I was that age, or how baffled I was that my seemingly sane parents would want to sit through two hour long Merchant Ivory movies that consisted entirely of British people having quiet discussions. Sometimes after school I’d put on my DVD of The Matrix and, via the scene selections menu, skip straight from one shootout to the next in order to absorb maximum violence without any of that boring context getting in my way.
At the time, pretty much every movie I liked followed the same general formula: There are some clearly delineated good guys and bad guys who have a reason to want to kill one another. Once all the lower-tiered bad guys have been killed, the good guy then kills the main bad guy last in some sort of spectacular fashion, and then the bad guy’s base explodes for one reason or another. This solves all of the good guy’s problems and then the movie is over.
Fargo is a movie about a slimy Midwestern car salesman who hires two cheap thugs to kidnap his wife so he can extort the ransom from his wealthy father-in-law. Due to a combination of bad luck and general idiocy the thugs wind up killing a few people in the process, and from there things really get fucked up. The locations are bleak and desolate, the characters average looking and not particularly eloquent, the story realistic and open ended.
I’d never seen anything like it before. I mean, the movie was undoubtedly violent – Fargo served as my introduction to the ‘nonlethal gunshot wound to the face’ trope, later revisited in Fight Club – but what I couldn’t get enough of was the way the simple plot spiraled further and further out of control as the movie went on. There wasn’t some terrorist mastermind or evil robot orchestrating all the chaos; the movie’s chief antagonists are greed and human error, and all the characters can really do is try to adapt to a series of increasingly shitty no-win scenarios.
After the movie I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life – write scripts like Fargo. In the space of one weekend I went from a summer blockbuster-loving philistine to an extremely pretentious movie snob, and I’ve never looked back.
Basically, the movie Fargo changed my life. So when I say that FX’s 10-episode Fargo anthology series is some really great television, know that I don’t make that statement lightly.
Fargo is well suited to TV because the setting is really the main character. The movie wasn’t so much about kidnapping and murder as it was about the way simple, small town people living a part of the country famous for politeness and good manners go about the business of kidnapping and murder. That, to me, is Fargo in a nutshell – sometimes, even really nice people do really terrible things to one another.
Even though there hasn’t been any reference to the events of the film – and I hope it stays that way – the producers have still been extremely faithful to the source material. There’s an ensemble cast of folksy Minnesotans with dark secrets and idiosyncratic speech patterns, the same deliberate pacing that finds humor in quiet, banal moments, and the beginnings of a sloppy criminal conspiracy that I can’t wait to see violently unravel over the course of the next eight episodes. They even went so far as to set the series in 2006, just like how the movie was produced in 1996 but arbitrarily set in the late 1980s.
Also, we need to take a second to talk about how incredible this cast is. Billy Bob Thornton plays a mysterious, Satanesque hitman, Martin Freeman ditches his British accent to play an insurance salesman even more downtrodden than his character on The Office, Bob Odenkirk is a laughably inept cop, and Oliver Platt is glorious as a supermarket owner (and just glorious in general). Allison Tolman plays a lead role as a young police officer and does a brilliant job of appearing both unsure of her abilities and more competent than everyone else in town, usually at the same time. (It’s also worth noting that she only had two acting credits before Fargo, one of which was as ‘Nurse’ on an episode of Prison Break 8 years ago.)
I get as upset as anybody else that so much of pop culture these days is derivative – it seems like everything’s a sequel, a reboot, based on a comic book, based on a TV show, or in the case of The Amazing Spider Man 2, all of those things that I just said. Fargo is a refreshing reminder that derivative isn’t always bad – sometimes there’s just more story to tell.
Truman Capps eagerly awaits the Fargo video game.