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Fargo, the highly praised and award-winning film by the Coen brothers, is rarely mentioned as a car movie. Besides cars playing a pivotal role, it all boils down to one character: Jerry Lundegaard. As inhabitants of the third rock from the sun, we have, all of us, had to deal with some version of Jer Lundegaard. He’s a literal bête noire of our world.
The Trope That’s True
The slimy car salesman is a trope, a cliché, a banal semi-insult that, like a bad Italian accent or the blond surfer dude airhead, is simultaneously hackneyed, familiar, correct, and wrong. Literally, 99 percent of the dealers I’ve interacted with are good people; they know cars, and they want your business. They’re not cheaters, underhanded, or crooks. Like mechanics, they labor under the common belief that they are nefarious people out to take your money.
They’re not, but Jer Lundegaard sure is. Stuttering, shifty, awkward, surreptitiously needy, and as trustworthy as a sideshow barker, if Lundegaard weren’t a car salesman, he’d be huffing snake oil at the turn of the 20th century. Everything about how William H. Macy plays the guy makes you want to back away and cross the street. The only reason to ever interact with Lundegaard is because you have no other option.
Yet, here we are. Every so often, we find ourselves at a dealership we should avoid. Then up ambles this guy in a suit made from a shower curtain, hair combed with buttered toast, side-eyeing your girlfriend’s legs, and bragging about his dime-store golf trophy. If not a suit, expect an unbuttoned polo with a gold chain and chest hair. And we have to deal with him.
We’re stuck in some Dantean circle of the underworld, and all we want to do is buy that Civic or Camry and get off the lot before he gets any of himself on us. But no, oh no, it’s not that easy. If this guy ran a bakery, he’d haggle over the price of a loaf of bread and then charge you an extra 10 cents for the bag; “Oh now, those aren’t gratis, friend. They put those in bags back at the plant.”
“You’ll Get Oxidation Problems”
Lundegaard’s personality (or lack thereof) is on full display during the famous TruCoat scene where ol’Jer screws over a hapless buyer with the proverbial undercoat scam. Of course, Lundegaard plays the victim, then the hero, then back to being the victim. The whole scene is uncomfortable, which is why Fargo is a hidden gem of a car movie. It gets to the heart of an experience we all want to avoid with such a big ticket purchase.
The TruCoat scene may be a couple of minutes of cinema perfection, but the rest of the movie matches it with ease. The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, are some of the most skilled filmmakers currently working. Like Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski, Fargo is about a kidnapping gone horribly awry. At the center of the nefarious plot is Jerry Lundegaard. He’s introduced early, and some people mistake him for the lead, the protagonist in our tale. He’s not. He’s the bad guy.
Our hero is none other than Brainerd, Minnesota, Police Chief Marge Gunderson. Played with an approachable calm by Frances McDormand, the wife of Joel Coen was so good she won an Oscar for her work. Although unassuming, quiet, slow, and by-the-book methodical, Marge is the heart and soul of Fargo. No matter what, no matter how tough, no matter how laborious, nothing stops Marge Gunderson from pursuing this case to its logical end. She is as relentless as the winter wind coming off Lake Huron. And she’s pregnant.
Gang of Idiots
Marge’s righteous quest for justice pits her against an assortment of the dumbest and most witless criminals ever put on film. Jer’s the “brains” of the outfit, but aiding and abetting his felonious endeavors are boneheads like convict and mechanic Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis) and the erstwhile muscle Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare). With this gang, it’s evident from the get-go that Mensa will not be calling.
Showalter is twitchy, talkative, and a mistake waiting to happen, while Grimsrud is a hulking Neolithic throwback that communicates in grunts. How Lundegaard expected this to work is beyond me, but it’s too late for that. The wheels are in motion, and now it’s only a question of how long before they fall off.
The Malaise Era
Fargo is set in 1987, which is after the end of the Malaise Era that plagued Detroit for a decade. Alongside the police cars, usually referred to as “Prowlers” by Marge, are boxy and predictable full-sized sedans like Crown Vics and Caprices. Unlike other car movies we have enjoyed, the vehicles of note in Fargo will eventually land on the bottom of the automotive scrap heap.
If you look, you’ll notice tons of mid-80s Buicks and Oldsmobiles. And while Buick still lives on (thanks to the Chinese market), Olds is now, sadly, a trivia answer. That said, an Oldsmobile plays a pivotal role in Fargo. Indeed, Jer pays off Showalter and Grimsrud with a Burnt Umber 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, a bland sedan whose only distinguishing feature is a great HVAC system.
Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) hatches a harebrained plan to kidnap his own wife to extort money from his wealthy father-in-law. Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) soon unravels the case.
Year: 1996 Best Car Movies Class: Crime
Fun Fact: The item on the buffet that Marge Gunderson skips is lutefisk, dried whitefish, cod, or ling soaked in lye. It has a gelatinous texture and is by all accounts an acquired taste, partly due to its smell. Madison, Minnesota, claims to have the highest lutefisk consumption in the U.S., higher than in Scandinavia. ~IMDb
Expertly done by cinematographer Roger Deakins, Fargo was shot in Minnesota and North Dakota in the absolute pit of winter. There is no background, only foreground. What’s back there fades into a pale white limbo of freezing cold. In some ways, it’s like Lawrence of Arabia, only cold. The entire landscape is bleak, desolate, foreboding, and threatening. The Coen brothers grew up in the Twin Cities. Hence, all of this – the weather, the people, the food, the mannerisms – comes as readily to them as a bunch of Italians sitting around a dinner table does to Martin Scorsese.
Apart from Showalter and Grimsrud, everyone in the movie is unfalteringly friendly, even Lundegaard. The cops, hookers, homeowners, and hotel staff are as polite as Cub Scouts meeting a small-town mayor. They are almost oppressively nice at all times. People from “up that way” tend to be polite and innocently present, even a scandalous car dealer like Jerry Lundegaard. According to IMDb, the cast and crew used Howard Mohr’s 1987 book How to Talk Minnesotan to pin down the film’s signature dialogue.
Where To Watch Fargo
Thanks to the convenience of modern streaming services, older films like Fargo are readily available on places like Amazon Prime. If you are a purist, you can grab a copy on DVD. If you really like the movie, consider taking a trip to the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center off I-94 in Fargo, North Dakota. The wood chipper from the film is there on display.
Longtime Automoblog writer Tony Borroz has worked on popular driving games as a content expert, in addition to working for aerospace companies, software giants, and as a movie stuntman. He lives in the northeast corner of the northwestern-most part of the Pacific Northwest.