Fargo Is Actually a Romance

By Olivia Armstrong

The Coen Brothers’ Oscar-winning crime film is also a love letter to the Midwest.


After Raising Arizona and before The Big Lebowski, siblings and creative partners Joel and Ethan Coen made pitch-black romantic comedy Fargo. Though, not everyone sees it that way.

While easily parodied accents, a couple of Oscar wins and an adapted series have cemented it as a pillar of contemporary cinema, Fargo’s chance at rom-com resonance and feel-good sentimentality have been all but overlooked since its 1996 release. Thanks, woodchipper.

The film’s plot is simple enough: Auto salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) hires a duo of inept criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife. Jerry convinces his wealthy father-in-law to foot the ransom, from which Jerry hopes to cop half. Only problem is, just about everything imaginable goes wrong, and the politely tenacious (and very pregnant) police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is hot on their trail.

But let’s try viewing it from a different angle: Minnesota police chief and mom-to-be Marge Gunderson loves her job but doesn’t live for it. Her gentle husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch) balances his days between making sure his “Margie” is comfortable — she is seven months along, after all — and painting mallard ducks. Their quiet lives shift when Marge gets a call about a triple homicide involving three of the region’s most incompetent criminals.

Through Marge’s unflappable pursuit of the truth, we’re introduced to the charming idiosyncrasies of a snow-covered bubble of innocence, honesty and simplicity: the Midwest. While the film features a few brutal acts of violence, the Coens’ tenderness for Fargo’s setting can be felt in every shot, every line of dialogue — almost as if baffled by its otherworldly quirk.

Even Buscemi’s crook Carl Showalter is caught off-guard by the region’s wholesome approach: “What’s wrong with you people?!” he bellows in frustration. The short answer? Not a whole lot. Or as Marge would say to Norm, “Heck, we’re doin’ pretty good.”

Outside of Marge’s and Norm’s uncomplicated compassion, Fargo can also be seen as the Coen Brothers’ unofficial love letter to the sincerity of the Midwest. This is, perhaps, most apparent in one of the film’s closing scenes. “There’s more to life than a little money, ya know,” Marge says when she gets her guy. “Dontcha know that? And here ya are. And it’s a beautiful day.” She isn’t accusatory or judgmental, just matter-of-fact.

Can Fargo still be enjoyed as a seminal crime drama? Oh, yah. An expertly written revamp of the classic noir with near-perfect performances? You betcha. But it’s also an atypical crowd pleaser, chock full of affection for the underdog — in this case, both Marge and her unassuming hometown.

Olivia Armstrong has written for Decider, Tribeca Film, HuffPo and Jezebel. Her staff picks feature movies that either make her weep or scare her silly.