Lovers of independent films have flocked to Joel and Ethan Coen's work ever since their 1984 debut feature Blood simple. 1996's Fargo became their biggest hit yet. The disarmingly original tale of a kidnapping scheme gone awry is fall-down funny but also emotionally complex. The film portrays a section of the country rarely if ever depicted in movies, the upper Midwest of Minnesota and the Dakotas where harsh winters dominate the lives of hard-working Americans far removed from the lifestyles of the population centers.
True to form, the Coens begin Fargo with an out-and-out falsehood, a title card that claims that what follows is a true story. They say they were curious to find out if the fib would cause audiences to enter the film with a different attitude, but the fact is that the convention of "True Story" disclaimers is dubious at best. How many times have we seen a card reading "based on a true story" attached to ninety minutes of a screenwriter's imaginings?
The people of Fargo, North Dakota speak with a Scandinavian lilt and pepper their speech with "Yah" and "You betcha!", a pattern that makes for smiles and easy laughs, especially when the better part of a conversation can consist of head nods and "Yahs". The Northern folk are noted for being friendly and polite, an attitude too easily interpreted by jaded urbanites as bovine stupidity. Some detractors of the Coens are convinced that the filmmakers are sneering at their rural characters, and express their hatred of America when they emphasize these hick mannerisms.
Frances McDormand's Police Chief Marge Gunderson strikes down that conclusion almost immediately. Equally as open and unguarded as her neighbors, Marge is a professional all the way, and no dummy. The novelty of this unimposing female police chief on the trail of unpredictable killers is a nice tension device, compounded by the fact that Marge is also pregnant. Examining a pair of murder victims, she announces that she's going to barf -- but then concludes that it's just morning sickness.
The Coens' script develops three story threads simultaneously. Embezzling car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) can't get his wealthy father-in-law Wade (Harve Presnell, of The Unsinkable Molly Brown) to take him seriously. He concocts a plan to have his wife kidnapped, and split Wade's ransom money with the kidnappers. Already a lying sociopath as a car salesman (the "undercoat" scene is priceless), Jerry makes one awful decision after another, convinced that the next lie or trick will fix everything.
The crooks Jerry hires are both unreliable and uncontrollable. Luckless loser Carl Showalter (independent icon Steve Buscemi) and uncommunicative goon Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) storm into Jerry's house and haul poor Jean Lundegaard (Kristin Rudrüd) away to a cabin in the woods. Unfortunately, the blundering pair kills three innocent people in the process. Despite the weather, Chief Marge is on the case immediately. She traces the car and a phone number back to the car dealership where Jerry is feverishly trying to falsify loan documents. The stubborn Wade Gustafson insists on delivering the ransom personally ("It's my money!"), ruining Jerry's entire plan.
Fargo has several instances of bloody violence but its leisurely pace is determined by the character of the landscape -- one needs to make plans just to move about in the sub-zero weather conditions. Connective scenes stress ordinary people trying to make their lives work. The Lundegaards' teenage son is desperately concerned for his mother's safety. A mechanic at the car dealership, Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis) finds his parole in jeopardy just for introducing Jerry to Carl Showalter. Jerry's half-baked scheme promptly falls apart, setting desperate people on a collision course that guarantees more tragedy.
The absurdity and the waste are frequently funny, especially with such perfect casting. Steve Buscemi's cheap crook Carl is practically a public service message against taking up a life of crime. Carl loses control of his emotions far too easily, and ends up the butt of a violent joke. William H. Macy's Jerry Lundegaard is the ultimate ethics-challenged car salesman, an All-American jerk with an insincere smile for every occasion. Infantile and frustrated, the pitiful Jerry is his own worst enemy. We still hate him -- his schemes bring down too much misery on other people.
Frances McDormand's pregnant Marge captures the full sympathy of the audience. She's a dedicated cop, even as she waddles to crime scenes. Marge maintains a remarkably positive attitude; she's very tolerant toward some of her less-competent deputies. Marge's encounters help distinguish Joel and Ethan Coen's worldview from that of obscurantist David Lynch. Lynch's Blue Velvet presents a carnival of grotesqueries for its own sake: "Life is Strange". In Fargo, Marge must face up to execution-style slayings and even worse atrocities, and maintain her emotional balance. Almost as disturbing is her meeting with an old school acquaintance (Steve Park) who tells pathetic lies in a seduction attempt. Marge doesn't despair at these depressing encounters because she has a solid home life with her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch), a stay-at-home artist who loves her dearly. Their modest lifestyle wouldn't impress fast-lane types in L.A. or New York, but Marge and Norm are better representatives of American values. The Coens present us with an occasional yokel that might seem demeaning, but they show nothing but admiration for Marge and Norm Gunderson.
Marge's own excellent police work is based on natural interviewing skills. Her non-judgmental approach to a pair of teen hookers yields useful results, and she's just as good when talking to the unresponsive Shep Proudfoot, or refusing to put up with Jerry Lundegaard's feeble evasions. Yet we know that Marge is heading pregnant and alone to a showdown with the murderous kidnappers, with only her police rule book lessons to guide her. Fargo is an altogether unique crime thriller.
MGM and Fox's Blu-ray of Fargo is a transfer approved by the Coens' post-production supervisor. It's sharp and detailed but seems very grainy in 1080p. As I remember the DVD looking grainy as well, it's possible that the film was simply shot that way; the texture is most noticeable on wide shots of snow and ice. Otherwise the picture is remarkable. We can feel the cold in the actors' flushed faces, and the crimson blood is twice as shocking when splattered on the snow, or poor luckless Carl Showalter.
The commentary is provided by Roger A. Deakins, the director of cinematography on most of the Coens' films since Barton Fink. Listed as a featurette, Minnesota Nice is a pleasing 2003 mid-length docu by Jeffrey Schwarz's Automat pictures, with excellent, funny interviews. The film is viewable with a Trivia Track option, which takes its name too literally: when a telephone is shown in one shot, a trivia balloon surfaces offering a dull fact about the phone company. An American Cinematographer article, a brief still photo gallery and a trailer round out the extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fargo Blu-ray rates:
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