Author's note: I'm going to be treating this like you already know the story, and after a quarter of a century, you really ought to. Still, probably best to hold off on reading this if you haven't seen the film - and also, I strongly urge you to see the film.

There are so many ways to approach Fargo, one of the richest American films of the 1990s and the film that made Joel & Ethan Coen household names, to the extent that they ever became household names. It is possibly the single film I have thought about the most, which to be clear, does not mean that I expect this to be my most comprehensive and intellectually gratifying review I've ever written. On the contrary, there are so many things I want to say about Fargo that I'm sitting here in a panic wondering which ones I'll have to completely ignore, and how to avoid writing about the rest in the form of a shapeless laundry list of observations.

At the broadest level, Fargo is a story the Coens had told several times and would tell several times in the future: somebody who thinks he's smarter than he is comes up with a foolproof plan that goes wrong almost immediately, sucking in the guilty and the innocent alike to deal with the fallout. In fact, Fargo feels in some respects like a remake of the brothers' debut feature from 1984, Blood Simple: there are several shots that are duplicated or mirrored between the two films (e.g. driving down empty roads at night, an aerial shot of someone walking toย  car in a parking lot), and whole sequences that feel like they're reworking ideas from the earlier film (e.g. dragging a body from the edge of a road into a field). Both films are extremely violent crime thrillers centered around a large pile of money.

They'd do a sort-of remake of Blood Simple yet again in 2007, with No Country for Old Men, and the three films each seem, in its own way, to describe a new phase in the Coen filmography. No Country, of course, was their renaissance film after the two biggest critical failures of their career ( another interesting wrinkle to the pattern: bothย  Fargo and No Country directly followed a comedy generally regarded at the time as an artistic failure, while all three films precede a very chaotic and shaggy comedy that seems almost consciously designed as a palate cleanser). Fargo was their big breakthrough, if not necessarily an all-time box-office smash (though it comfortably turned a profit, something not every Coen film does), then at least a big middlebrow talking point, with its Oscar nominations and mainstream critics talking about it with almost religious fervor. It kicks off the phase where the Coens were no longer longer indie movie enfants terribles, but indie movie elder statesmen - undoubtedly helped along by the sudden explosion in visibility and respectability for indie cinema in the mid-'90s - and dare I even say it, a "brand name". They were as of this point secure and stable, and I wonder if that's part of what led to revisiting Blood Simple, after five films in a row that have virtually nothing in common generically, tonally, or stylistically: they knew they could get it right now.

And get it right they certainly did. There are lots of dissimilarities between Fargo and Blood Simple, big and small, significant and trivial, but the most important one of all is that Blood Simple is a bleak, blackhearted story about the awful things people can do when they're greedy and panicked, and it treats this subject with the alarmed seriousness of someone trying to handle a rattlesnake; Fargo is a bleak, blackhearted story &c. that's also one of the most hilarious dark comedies of its generation. It recognises that everything wretched and bad that happens over the course of the story is fundamentally absurd, and if you can't laugh derisively at awful people making things worse, well, what are you going to do?

The result is the film that, more than anything else the Coens made until at least 2009's A Serious Man (their other film set in their home state of Minnesota) best embodies all of the things that go into making something "Coenesque": a sometimes uncomfortable porousness between "this is a funny comedy" and "this is a horrifying portrait of sociopaths", an exacting sense of location depicted primarily though vivid dialogue, airtight editing that pretends to be slack (starting with Fargo, the brothers would edit every single one of their films themselves, having only thus far cut Blood Simple and Barton Fink), all swirling around the heart and soul of a morality play. It's a bit ridiculous that Fargo, by virtue of being the film that really thrust the Coens into the public eye is also the one that first got them smeared with a criticism that only really started to fade in the 2010s: that they're smug, superior nihilists who despise the characters and see fit only to mock them. I can see how someone not from the Midwest might think that Fargo, with its wall-to-wall "you betchas" and "yahs" and "Oh, jeezes", and its kitschy interiors, is making fun of its setting. I mean, it is making fun of its setting (and twice, I even think it's genuinely cruel about it: the dumb look on the face of a restaurant cashier (Petra Boden) asking how Jerry's day is going, and a ridiculous poster for a star accordionist). But it's like parody: you can only do it well if it comes from a place of deep knowledge and true love. Fargo is, in the eyes of this lifelong Midwesterner, the great cinematic depiction of the region, aptly diagnosing all of its faults and the passive-aggressive wheedling that has, in my experience, been the thing that most pisses off outsiders trying to interact with the region for the first time. But it also depicts the unfussy pragmatism and the productive stubbornness and the ways that people can actually be agreeable and really nice, and not just "Nice".

And it binds all of these up in the form of the most straightforward morality tale in a filmography that, from this point forward, would be largely obsessed with morality. This is, in large part, because unlike almost every other Coen film, Fargo has a character who is genuinely, incontestably Good (which is part of why it's ridiculous for this to be the film that has born brunt ofย  "they hate their characters" criticism). That being Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, in the role of her career), the chief of police in the town of Brainderd, Minnesota, who is called upon to investigate a triple-homicide that surpasses everything she has seen for ugliness. And it won't even be the ugliest thing she sees in the movie. Marge's arc over the film is as element as a character in a medieval religious allegory: she starts the film in a place of utter, beatific kindness and optimism (she's even seven months pregnant, a detail the film thankfully treats as just an unstressed character nuance, rather than capital-S Symbolism); over the course of the film, she learns that her optimism is no match for the fact that people are just, like, liars, greedy and short-sighted and nasty types who can't think of other people as anything but set dressing in the story of their own lives. And learning this troubles and depresses her.

But the amazing thing about Fargo, the thing that even filmmakers far less inclined toward cynicism and irony than Joel & Ethan Coen would have had a hard time with, is that Marge does not break, and she does not learn despaire. The film gives her two big moments to affirm her worldview, first in the form of her monologue that she sort of delivers to the most openly evil of all the very shitty men in the film, Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), but the editing to insert shots of his dead eyes makes sure we see that he's not listening, and we know that she sees he's not listening, and so she's basically just reflecting to herself; this reflection leads her to note that, for all the death and mayhem, it's still a beautiful day outside. And while here at the end of the film, Marge can't simply let the beautiful day overwrite her new wisdom that there is suffering and malice; she also won't deny that the day is, when all is said and done, still beautiful. McDormand nails the scene, looking tired and sad but also hard and oddly stern, like she's more disappointed in Grimsrud than anything. And the film, God bless it, lets her win: at the end, he flicks his eyes towards her in another one of those insert shots - she doesn't see it, but we do, and so we get the pleasure of knowing that her simple, everyday goodness has scored a hit against the most inhumane character in the film.

McDormand nails it again just two scenes later, in the closing shot of the film, a long take where Marge switches gears from all of this to return to the hilariously small matter of her husband Norm's (John Carroll Lynch, for whom this movie was functionally the start of his career in cinema) entry to a painting contest. Except that McDormand refuses to treat it like a small matter at all, and part of the great pleasure of the scene is the contrast to her worn-out lecture in the previous scene; she's still stern, but now it's mixed with affection and warmth, and instead of being drained and fatigued, she seems more cozy in her tiredness, the way you are when you're ready to curl up in a warm bed. McDormand and Lynch are at their best together in this scene, and that's after an entire feature of great scenes together; her little smirks at him, until he finally starts to break down and grin even while he's complaining (the way Lynch shows that Norm is trying and failing to keep himself from smiling, both in his facial expression and the tone of his voice, is one of my favorite grace notes in the movie), is a sweet depiction of an uncommonly good and functional marriage. And then, because this is a great piece of art and not simply a crowdpleaser, the film gently complicates this, with the final two lines, each actor saying "Two more months" in subtly different registers: for Lynch, it's a simple declaration of strength and companionship, and for McDormand...? I still don't know, and the not-knowing is of course the point. Is she affirming the tight-knit bond between the couple and their unborn child? Or is she thinking back on all she's seen and realising with horror that she's going to bring a new life into this world? McDormand's ambivalent expression isn't telling, and it's exactly the right tone for Fargo to end on, having spent so much of its running time refusing to resolve the tension between "there are good people" and "there are wicked people".

It is, however, a movie by the Coen brothers, and so it's not all that shocking that, when all is said and done, they've weighted the film in favor of the wicked people. Marge isn't the film's protagonist, and this is the dirty trick that Fargo plays on us: it shows us that good, earnest people exist in the world, and can make the world a better place, but it then forces us into aligning with the pathetic, awful Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy, in the role of his career). It's not very complicated how it does this: we meet Jerry first, and spend the first third of the 98-minute film with him. The film tricks us into feeling sorry for him, by making the other two villains - Grimsrud and Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) - much more actively unpleasant, and openly murderous; Jerry is just one of those "in over his head" antiheroes, the likes of which film noir has been thriving on for decades. And the film also keeps us at arm's remove from his victims: his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrรผd), the most damaged innocent in all of this, is only given two scenes to establish her personality, and she doesn't really get one; his son Scotty (Tony Denman) has two scenes as well and makes even less of an impression. Meanwhile, his father-in-law and boss, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) is a wholly unsympathetic piece of shit who delights in belittling Jerry as an obvious power play, and later is clearly more offended that he can't treat a kidnapping like a business negotiation than he is upset by the idea that his daughter is in the hands of maniacs. It is, I would say, much easier to hate Wade than Jerry, and for that reason above all, Jerry emerges as a kind of disgustingly sympathetic figure, though so pathetic and self-negating that it's unpleasant to feel sympathetic for him - even when he's trying to comfort his son, he has so little faith in his own personality and humanity that he needs to invoke the spectre of Wade's accountant Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg) to back up his feeble attempts to have any kind of human presence at all.

The flipside to this is that there's not one single point in the movie where Jerry does anything to earn that sympathy the film has nudged onto us. He's inarticulate from the opening scene: while everybody in the film speaks in exaggerated, mannered dialogue, Jerry is the one who keeps chopping off sentences and stumbling over words, and in his very first dialogue scene, Macy does a combination head nod, head shake, and stutter that makes basically our first impression of Jerry as somebody who literally does not have thoughts in his head. He displaces blame and responsibility every single time it comes up, and he does this from the first scene as well ("Shep told me 8:30. It was a mix-up, I guess"). He is a car salesman, and if there's any job better suited to making us hate a man at first sight, that's the one, especially given how badly he handles the job, as we see in a brilliant little scene of local color, with a customer (Gary Houston) so turned off by Jerry's sliminess that he commits the ultimate un-Midwestern act of swearing. And the way that Houston has to lock his eyes wide open and take a big swallow before weirdly horking out the word "fucking" while his wife (Sally Wingert) visibly flicnhes is another one of my favorite grace notes in the movie, as well as being a clear sign of just how repulsive Jerry is.

And yet, he's our ride through the movie. The nasty trap of Fargo is that we can't switch over to Marge, even once she finally shows up: the film has lined up the hierarchy of knowledge too hard against her - we know more than she ever will, and we know some of it before she even enters the movie. The only time we learn something at the moment Marge learns it is her discovery that Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) was lying to her, and it's that little shock of lining up with her just once that helps make it clear how that moment is the critical point in her character arc (prior to that moment, in fact, she hasn't really changed at all). We can admire Marge, and we can want to be Marge, but the film is sticking us with Jerry, and that's the sickest, nastiest joke of all, and it's why, for all that Marge's final scene give the film the feeling of a warm blanket on a cold day, I still haven't shaken the sounds of Jerry's animalistic screams of terror as the cops finally catch him - Macy digging deep to pull something profound and horrible out of his guts - when the credits start to roll. That tension between a wholly admirable character and a wholly loathsome one at their warmest and their most repulsive is the punctuation mark to the film's entire attempt to compare and contrast small everyday good and vulgar little evil, and the film's refusal to just give us the warmth is a real achievement, however disconcerting.

The whole movie is tense that way. The comedy itself - and did I mention that it's a hilarious movie? Because I feel like I've spent a couple thousand words describing an extremely unfunny movie - is largely born out of the tension between how the characters think of themselves and how they really are. Jerry and Carl are both complete incompetents, something we are shown over and over again, but they both persist in thinking that they have things under control, and watching them faceplant over and over again is a major source of the film's absurd humor. Tellingly, the jokes around Marge are much more character and situation-based, letting us enjoy the self-amused rhythms of these pokey Minnesotan folks who take everything, no matter how grave, with acerbic good cheer. In other words, we laugh with Marge, we laugh at Jerry and Carl.

There's also a tension between humor and how very dour the movie is stylistically. Here I am, almost 3000 words in, and just finally mentioning the name of Roger Deakins, whose work here is a strong candidate for best cinematography of the 1990s: he has found a way of making white skies over white snowfields so beautiful it almost makes me tear up. But beyond being simply beautiful, it is bleak: the way the horizon sort of disappears between the snow and the overcast skies makes everything feel like a sheet of light grey has attached itself to the entire world, sucking its vitality out. Similarly, Carter Burwell's score (my favorite one he composed for the Coens, and isn't that a tough decision to have to make) kicks things off with a motif that just feels exhausted, like climbing up a hill in the pouring rain - or driving snow - and collapsing of fatigue before you're able to enjoy the view. Even the sleigh bells hanging out in the orchestration are somehow worn out and drained. Which is to say, we have here an aesthetic that is simultaneously very beautiful (a different version of this extremely long essay might have just been describing one shot after another and explaining why each one is my favorite in the history of cinema), and very defeated - a perfect style for a film about the hard coldness of a Minnesota winter and the people who just have to survive that hardness whether humans should be able to or not, and for a film about how good will just have to keep on trudging even knowing full well that there's always going to be evil.

The editing even gets in on the fun, a bit. This is a film with some extremely long takes: many scenes go by without a cut. And this, too, is a tension between incompatible impulses: sometime the long takes are all about making us watch as life crawls by miserably, like when Jerry walks across a snowy parking lot, having been defeated in the one moderately decent thing we see him attempt to do through the whole movie. But sometimes they're getting at that same Midwestern solidness and good humor. For example, the long take of Marge getting up from the table in her warm orange kitchen and waddling out the door into the steely blue dawn, holding for a couple of beats, and waddling back in to ask Norm to jump her car. It's a sweet moment, and terrifically funny because of how unforced and pragmatic it is, and it wouldn't have worked at all with cutting; the fact that the moment just hangs there is the joke.

Or there's the matter of the late scene that is, sneakily, the pivot for the entire plot, despite involving one character we've only briefly glimpsed and one who appears nowhere else in the film: Officer Olson (Cliff Rakerd) interviewing Mr. Mohra (Bain Boehlke) in the latter man's driveway, inadvertently getting the only piece of information that allows Marge to crack the case. It's not quite a single take: we see Olson get out of the car in a separate shot. But the men's conversation plays out in one uninterrupted blast, which underscores both Mohra's own relative disinterest in the plot-critical story he's telling, and means that there's no shift in energy as the two men turn to the much more crucial matter of talking about the weather. In a film of great Midwesternisms, there's none that I treasure more than seeing a man bundled up in a park solemnly declaring "Looks like she's gonna turn cold tomorrow", with the firm knowledge that while this particular snow-covered day isn't exactly warm, it could get much worse. It's hilarious and also a little bit sobering - because it could get worse. That's the flipside to the movie's pragmatic morality, and to Midwestern pragmatism in general, and it's the reason why this is, for me, maybe secretly the most important scene in Fargo: the amazing winter cinematography and the languid editing and the amazing dialect humor and the slow, methodical acting all combining to give us the message that yah, it could be a lot worse. And we are all invited to take that as a comfort or not.