Today! Because I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Lou –
Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen (x3)
Starring Frances McDormand (x2), William H. Macy (x2), Steve Buscemi (x2), Peter Stormare, John Carroll Lynch (x3), Harve Presnell (x2), Kristin Rudrud, Steve Reevis
I was well on board with the Coens by 1996 – even if it had been a few years since a really strong outing. The Hudsucker Proxy is weird fun and Barton Fink is surrealistic madness, but prior to those we got Miller’s Crossing, Raising Arizona, and Blood Simple – a pretty range-y group of movies sharing some bits of that Coen sensibility we’d all come to know and love. But I’d venture the majority of viewers didn’t really get into the Coens until they made Fargo, which kicked off arguably their best period of filmmaking, in tight competition with the last decade’s output of No Country For Old Men, True Grit, A Serious Man, and Inside Llewyn Davis.
In addition to ultimately spawning the excellent FX inspired-by TV show, Fargo provided instantly iconic characters and moments, superseded in the Coen canon only (probably) by their next film, The Big Lebowski. Between Frances McDormand’s pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson and William H. Macy’s bitter, inept criminal plotter Jerry Lundegaard and the case of loot buried in the snow and the wood chipper, this movie finally brought the brothers around to the full-on pseudo-comic mayhem and violence their earlier movies hinted at. And while it wasn’t exactly a box office hit – they didn’t really have any hits per se, until No Country won Best Picture and cracked $50 million for the brothers – it was the awards darling that had long eluded them, and a massive cult favorite.
Maybe only interesting to me – unadjusted, all of the Coen brothers movies combined have grossed less than The Incredibles 2, domestically. That’s seventeen theatrical films, not including their Netflix movie, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, or the segment they directed for Paris je t’aime. And nearly 30% of their total grosses come from True Grit alone. I don’t know, that’s amazing to me.
Maybe their Oscar ascension was aided in some part by Fargo luckily getting released in ’96. That year’s Academy Awards was not the greatest group of films ever – The English Patient, Jerry Maguire, Secrets & Lies (Quick! What’s Secrets & Lies about?) – so they might’ve been more willing to go in for violent crime comedies and the like, things they didn’t normally honor. It was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor for Macy, Cinematography, and Film Editing. This kicked off a pretty great run for the brothers – currently recipients of 14 nominations and four wins, including Best Screenplay here.
McDormand also won her first Oscar for playing Marge – the only pregnant main character in a film I can remember who does not give birth by the end. Is that true? It’s almost just treated as a character trait – like she’s allergic to something – and not as the entire purpose of her life. That’s kinda nice, huh? Refreshing? She was still interviewing witnesses and chasing down criminals all while in the condition. Well formulated!
This is the third Coen film on the list, following #367 A Serious Man and #197 Inside Llewyn Davis, making them the 20th Three-Timers on the directing side. The great designer of the three-cent stamp (and clear-cut movie MVP) Norm Gunderson himself John Carroll Lynch is the only new Three-Timer actor today, after his roles in #278 Zodiac and #330 Face/Off, while we’ve got a slew of new Two-Timers, including Lynch’s Face/Off co-star Presnell, Mr. Pink from #252 Reservoir Dogs Steve Buscemi, #397 Wonder Boys’ McDormand, and #217 Magnolia’s Macy.