Over the years since the release of their freshman feature, Blood Simple, Joel and Ethan Coen have transformed the balancing act between comedy and drama into a cinematic playground, playfully experimenting with the threshold between deadpan antics and sober storytelling. Instead of categorized as successes and failures, the duo's work yields a gradient of distinctive productions that are easily appreciated for the ways in which they tip the scales to one side or the other. Therefore, to say that Fargo is their most balanced creation isn't a slight on their other work, but merely an observation of how the pieces come together in their "homespun murder story". Set across the snowy expanses of the Midwest and mischievously billed as a true story, the Coens' fascination with ordinary people involved in crimes out of their depth reaches a fever pitch in their tale of abduction, ransom, and fraud, where dark humor and disquieting anxiety blend while giving a nudge and a wink with its exaggerated accents.
You probably wouldn't expect this turn of events to come out of the frigid stretch between Minnesota and North Dakota during the dead of winter, because, really, who'd want to bring this much unnecessary grief on themselves in those inhospitable conditions? Greed and desperation are powerful drivers, though, evidenced by the plan(s) that awkward car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) hatches to pay off a suspicious debt: he hires a pair of professional thugs, Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), to kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrud) and extort a hefty ransom from his wealthy and assertive father-in-law (Harve Presnell), also Jerry's boss, while acting as the innocent middle-man as they split the take. The scheme, of course, gets out of control, drawing a police investigation into the equation as Jerry nervously scrambles to patch things up. His wife's kidnappers aren't exactly a cool, professional criminal pairing either, leading to their own mishaps along the Minnesota roads.
Reportedly inspired by true events without sticking to any actual criminal case, The Coen Brothers' script savors the uneasiness of detestable characters getting in verbal standoffs involving the crime, setting the stage for coexisting stories with humanity's uglier traits looming around every corner. The directors' ability to create peculiar scenes of discomforting humor and layered emotion finds an ideal setting here: the antagonism between a husband and his father-in-law turns pitch-black amid the abduction's moving parts, while the rapport between her inept kidnappers creates a hostile and unpredictable atmosphere with her well-being in the balance. Oddly, there's something unsettlingly human about them all -- the nervousness behind Jerry's desperate scheming; Showalter's surprised response to witnessing violence; the effectiveness of Gimsrud's violent actions -- that gives the film plenty of complexity to digest amid its almost-farcical twist on the kidnapping caper, flirting with quaint reality amid its sadistic absurdity.
The craftsmanship in Fargo could easily go overlooked, since it does such a subtly impeccable job of capturing the tension in small-town domesticity and the frosty expanses between Minnesota and North Dakota. Roger Deakins' cinematography gives the film some understated yet breathtaking moments, like an overlooking shot of crossing car tracks between tree planters in a snowed-over parking lot and the sights of Jerry's ransacked house after the abduction, that underscore some of the bleak, haunting tones that the Coen Brothers were after. In general, as can be expected of the directors' films, there's a lot of focus on close-ups and observation of facial reactions created by their methodically-chosen cast: Jerry's nervousness causes his eyes and expressions to intensify as his situation grows deeper, while the cuts between a wide-eyed Showalter and the stony, slack-eyed Grimsrud sublimely accentuate their differences. Fright, frustration, and superiority are all beautifully distilled in the Coens' cynical depiction of anxiety among low-ball criminals and the regular people caught in their midst.
It's all pretty ill-omened at first, until a call gets placed to Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), a pregnant small-town police chief whose keen investigation abilities are amusingly accompanied by her bloated movement and sporadic sickness. Marge -- and, by extension, McDormand in her recurring collaboration with the Coens -- effortless earns our compassion, alongside her relationship with her doting, mallard-painting husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), but it's not just because of the lack of sympathetic characters surrounding her case. As the Coen Brothers introduce this third story thread around her commonplace married life and how it juxtaposes with how she responds to the brutal repercussions of the abduction, McDormand does some brilliant things with her Minnesotan dialect, unforced charm during interviews, and deduction skills. In essence, she embodies the overarching message Fargo makes about greed and down-to-earth satisfaction, cleverly applying things she picks up on in her everyday activities as she brushes with danger and dishonesty.
The marriage between Marge's police work and the Coen Brothers' macabre comedic structure becomes exceptionally absorbing as Fargo speeds towards its finale, peppered with violence and disquieting situations upon its arrival at a bloody, undeniably iconic conclusion. The film's momentum obviously doesn't rely on discovering a whodunit mystery, but rather watching the dominoes fall around those who did it: who'll get away, who'll self-destruct, and where Marge's intuition will ultimately lead her. All the way until its grotesque finale, it's obvious that the directors have landed on the right formula for making the falling pieces of such a conventional story into something unconventional, disturbing, and thoroughly entertaining, where knowing the details about Jerry's scheme -- wittily revealed in the very first scene of the film, in fact -- is just the tip of the iceberg of what their homespun murder story has to offer. The events may not be real, but Joel and Ethan Coen's versatile, sardonic craftsmanship makes one believe that the preposterous turn of events could be.
Despite a great new cover that repurposes the film's theatrical poster, resembling a cross-stitch pattern of a dead body, much of this remastered Fargo Blu-ray from MGM -- timed to coincide with the release of FX's new television series, based on the film's setting -- operates just like the previous disc (available as a standalone release and in the Coen Brothers Collection box set) with a few ever-so-slight tweaks. The menu design, largely white with frost accents as scenes from the film play in the background, appears almost exactly as it did in the first edition; however, the pop-up menu location has been shifted to right side of the screen, the subtle focus effect of the font has been switched out with a standard brightness toggle when hovering over text options, and you can utilize the pop-up menu during the bonus features. Other than that? It's nearly indistinguishable, from the subtitle options to the special features' arrangement and resolution.
Video and Audio:
Determining the quality of MGM's initial Blu-ray release of Fargo will depend on who you're asking: some will suggest that it appeared decent for its age and the film's intentions, while others will recall the hefty digital noise, edge enhancement, and general flatness of the image as they deem it a subpar effort. For the studio's 90th anniversary, MGM have sent Fargo -- notably on the National Film Registry's list of important and preservation-worthy films -- through a new restoration, resulting in a 1.85:1-framed 1080p AVC transfer that goes a long way towards rectifying those issues with the previous presentation. There's a layer of film grain that's present and organic, but not obtrusive during the daytime sequences that look directly into the bluish-white Minnesotan skyline. Enhancement halos have been drastically restrained, notably during the mid-contrast sequences where Jerry's in his office at the dealership, allowing the film's inherently sharp composition to not be hijacked by a stiff digital presence.
After taking a step back and looking at Fargo's new transfer as a whole without a direct comparison in mind, there's a capable, impressive amount of natural depth and color to the high-definition image that also benefits from the Coen Brothers' timeless visual composition, though one might take issue with intermittent warmth of skin tones and vibrancy of the palette. Not that those points look bad, mind you: flesh tones, the yellow of Showalter's sweater, the refraction of red and pink glass table ornaments and a chestnut wood TV cabinet sport pleasing, rich colors, but they're more assertive than the chilliness of the rest of the film's temperature. On top of that, the contrast levels here are rich and stable, yet certain black levels come across a tad deep (not detail-crushing, but a bit heavy). In general, despite a few minor reservations over the image's accuracy, it's an exceptional, relatively drastic improvement over the original disc and only a couple of steps away from being an ideal transfer.
It's a good thing that the visual do make such a strong impression, because the rest of the disc keeps things business as usual, down to the DTS-HD Master Audio track. After jumping back and forth between the two Blu-rays, I had a pretty difficult time picking up on much -- if any -- difference between the two audio treatments: a few sequences could, potentially, sport a mild boost in volume and richness of the surround stage, but this is by and large the same balanced, strong aural pairing. The speeding of cars down roads of various dampness, the background bustle of garages and bars, and the subtle ringing of phone and commerce in an office building emphasize the disc's stronger attributes in creating a surround mood, methodically using the rear channels where needed. Sound effects like the destruction of glass and the thump of bodies against wood floors deliver full, innate bass, while the strings and percussion in Carter Burwell's eerily tense small-town score are crisp, ever fueling the film's aural tone. English, Spanish, and French optional subs are available.
The real bummer about this disc comes in the dearth of any new special features, sporting the same substantive options -- the largely-technical Commentary with Cinematographer Roger Deakins; the amusing half-hour mini-doc Minnesota Nice (27:47, 4x3 SD); the Trivia Track; and the text-based American Cinematographer Article -- that we've had access to since 2003. An updated retrospective with the Coen Brothers and their cast would've been a welcome addition, or, at the very least, MGM could've re-included the omitted Charlie Rose segment available on the DVD. Alas, down to the Photo Gallery, Theatrical Trailer (1:58, 16x9 HD), and TV Spot (:31, 4x3 SD), everything's the same as the previous Blu-ray, effectively making the visual transfer the only real reason to drop money on this remastered package.
Fargo typically makes its way near the top of most movie-lovers' lists of favorites from the Coen Brothers, and for good reason: its depiction of a car salesman's bizarre scheme to have his wife kidnapped for a split of the ransom faultlessly treads the line between idiosyncratic comedy and nailbiter tension. With the mood, the dialogue, and the visual tone exceptionally capturing the rural Minnesotan landscape, they've set the stage for a group of obnoxiously authentic people to dig themselves into a snowy, bloody hole for themselves ... and for a pregnant, cleverer-than-she-looks police chief to get to the bottom of it. The casting is just about perfect, especially Francis McDormand as the bloated sleuth on the criminals' trails, which goes a long way towards making the absurd twist and turns in this homespun murder story into something almost believable on some wacky cinematic plane.
If you don't own Fargo on Blu-ray yet, then you shouldn't hesitate to hit the road and pick up MGM's remastered Blu-ray as soon as possible; however, the recommendation becomes a little trickier for those who have already purchased the film on the format in one form or another, since there aren't any discernible upgrades in the audio and supplemental departments. It's a beautiful new transfer, though, and the disc does sound great and carries over the features from the previous offering. It's all-around a Highly Recommended package, but those who already have it in their collection might want to wait on a lower price.
Note: Stills in this review are from MGM's 2003 DVD release of the film, and do not accurately represent the Blu-ray under review.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site