Sometimes I write scripts in my dreams.
It usually happens figuratively - my brain screens a near-complete movie for me that I then spend the next dozen waking hours attempting to transcribe (and yes, more often than not, it dissipates in the growing daylight as my less-easily-impressed conscious mind sees through all of its holes and flaws). Occasionally, however, I will dream that I am literally sitting in front of a notebook or typewriter, suffering over dialogue and story beats in a way that is only marginally more successful than my conscious attempts.
During one such dream, I wrote what was unquestionably the best work of my life. It was tightly-plotted and yet also managed to follow the awkward rhythms of real life; it saw both the inherent humor and inevitable tragedy within the unrelenting violence and ugliness of the world; it was just as strange and outlandish as I could make it while also feeling wholly honest, natural, and lived-in.
It was the perfect script.
It was my masterpiece.
It was Fargo.
That realization slowly dawned on me as I rolled out of bed and scrambled for the nearest pen and I had to concede that not only had my nocturnal masterwork been written already, but long-since fully produced to near-universal acclaim.
Flashback to the summer of 1994. Me and my brother are being led by our grandparents through Mackinac City, a tiny tourist hamlet at the top of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Ensconced within naively uninterrupted tranquility, we begin to wonder what the police force here would do if they were ever faced with a truly dangerous breed of criminal. To this day, my brother playfully rues the fact that we weren’t able to capitalize on that premise first.
It is partly the simplicity of that “what if?” that makes the film so successful - a crime story unraveling within a society that exists in hilariously quaint contrast to the more grisly machinations of its antagonists. We are able to both laugh at and yet also identify with the homespun simplicity of the main characters just as we are able to loathingly enjoy and yet also sympathize with Jerry Lundergaard’s frantic attempts to keep his boneheaded schemes from falling apart around him. That duality, the fact that we are rooting for Lundergaard to both be caught and to get away with it, speaks to the genius of the film. And yet the true stroke of brilliance is the (fictional) opening title assuring us that the film is based on a true story. Aside from giving the Coens carte blanche to follow their plot down any road they could possibly dream to take it while still maintaining narrative credibility, it gives the gruesomely hilarious proceedings the air of that great American pastime of true crime schadenfreude while also lending even the most despicable of its characters a human core that makes it difficult to hate them even when they're laughing as their helpless victims attempt futile escape in the snowy wilds or hacking their partners into bits and shoving them into wood-chippers.
The setting of the story in such a specific place, aside from lending comedic heft to the proceedings, also helps the film to achieve a universality that speaks towards its popularity and continued endurance. This is a world so removed from most viewers' that it may as well take place on a different planet, and yet the corners are painted in with such intricate detail that anyone who watches it can relate. We may think that we're laughing at these goofily polite Minnesotans, but we're really laughing at ourselves, struggling with tireless, often witless fortitude against the cold indifference of the universe to the erosion of even our best-laid plans.
It's possible that, had me and my brother struck a deal to sell or develop our idea right there on the shores of Lake Superior, we may have been able to craft a finished product so nuanced, so profound, and so entertaining.
On the other hand, it's probably a good thing that the Coens got to it first.
Christopher Sailor is the Programmer of Education for the Atlanta Film Festival. He also waxes cinematic at chrissailor.com
Fargo screens this Thursday, October 17th at 9:30pm and Sunday, October 20th at 1:00pm as part of our Fall Focus on Directors. Members get free admission to every screening in this series, so if you're not currently a member, be sure to rectify that.