Stranger Than Fiction: The Truthiness of ‘Fargo’ – Film School Rejects
Noah Hawley’s acclaimed midwestern crime anthology Fargo returns to FX this week, along with my enthusiasm for saying oh yah and you betcha to anyone with the gall to speak to me when I would rather be watching Fargo. In my defence there are not one, but two, gloriously bad Ewan McGregor wigs. Truly, Hawley is doing the Lord’s work. Season three is set in the not too distant past of 2010, and follows the tried-and-true template of a ridiculously stacked ensemble of endearing (and woefully misguided) ne’er do wells gradually bungling their way into a shit show of their own design. As with each of the previous installments, least of all the Coen Brothers’ original 1996 film, the opening of this week’s episode features the following superimposed text:
This is a true story. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in [year]. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.
This claim is, as in all incarnations, bullshit. Fargo is, as the tiny-print disclaimer in the credits notes, a work of fiction. Full disclosure: my gullible ass didn’t think to fact check this until about halfway through season 1 of the FX series. It’s an oversight I share with a great deal of the reviewers who saw the Coen original, skirted the then-nascent internet, and propagated what Joel and Ethan probably thought no one but the very dense would fall for (see: yours truly). That being duped, or at the very least rendered unsure, was possible is a testament to the effectiveness of a film that, to quote Ethan, “pretends to be true.”
Like most fiction, swatches of the Coens’ Fargo are sourced from real events: most emphatically, the “Woodchipper Murder” of Helle Crafts and, according to Joel, a real-life case of “a guy…gumming up serial numbers for cars and defrauding the General Motors Finance Corporation.” Not to say that Fargo is some artistic-license-abusing biopic because its inspiration has some ties to real events; by that logic, every film would require some kind of pre-show disclaimer. Rather, Fargo’s actual fidelity is a lot less interesting than it’s purported fidelity; that the Coens, and Hawley, have chosen to endow Fargo’s narrative with an apparent authority of truth. Or, as Ethan explained in a recent interview with The Huffington Post: “We wanted to make a movie just in the genre of a true story movie. You don’t have to have a true story to make a true story movie.”
This isn’t truthfulness— it’s something that feels like the truth; that itch in the back of your skull that says wait…maybe this happened for real. It’s a frustratingly charming invitation to wilfully ascent to a cinematic reality; to give it a place in what you consider to be possible. To say “yes” to such requests can be both enchanting and dangerous. I cannot speak to every instance of fictions that, like Fargo, pretend to be true — but I would like to briefly touch on two of my favourites: found-footage horror, and its predecessor, the early modern travel novel.