Thursday, January 3, 2013


FARGO           A                 
USA  Great Britain  (98 mi)  1996  d:  Joel and Ethan Coen

I'm not sure I agree with you 100% on your policework, there, Lou.

I guess that was your accomplice, in the wood chipper?                  
— Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand)

This is as vivid a picture of the Midwest heartland as you’re going to find, described by the Coens as “Siberia with family restaurants,” an overly polite and friendly place with cheerful faces but also plenty of weary and downbeat souls, desperate people who feel the weight of the world upon them.  This good and evil saga concerns one such person in plenty of trouble, William H. Macy as car salesman Jerry Lundergaard, living and working under the thumb of his much more successful father-in-law, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell), who owns the car dealership.  Powerless and feeling like a squashed ant in his life and within his own family, Jerry has gotten himself into a heap of financial difficulties just trying to stand on his own two feet, but he’s up to his neck in debt and forged loans that his father-in-law is about to discover sooner or later, so he makes a Faustian bargain with two guys on the wrong side of the tracks, the anxiously talkative blabbermouth Steve Buscemi as Carl Showalter and the stoic, elusively quiet, pancake loving Peter Stormare as Gaear Grimsrud, the kind of criminally reckless imbeciles you hope to never do business with.  The calm serenity of the opening sequence is literally rhapsodic, a white coated screen bathed in snow, with just the bare outlines of a road coming into view, as headlights from a car can be seen in the distance slowly creeping towards the motionless camera.  Carter Burwell’s mournful music feels elegiac, like something played out on the Civil War battlegrounds, as it carries plenty of weight but couldn’t be more hauntingly beautiful.  This is as gorgeous an opening as any film you can find, out of which comes the principle characters, Jerry and the two numbskulls sitting in a bar in Fargo, North Dakota hashing out their agreed-upon plans where Jerry will pay them $80,000 to kidnap his own wife (Kristin Rudrüd), believing her father will foot the bill in ransom payments.  Lundergaard, of course, weasel that he is, gets a little greedy and tries to embezzle a million dollars, the kind of money that would make anyone nervous, and he’s as fidgety and uptight as they come. 

After spending a little time with these three morons, the camera opens in the tranquility of a couple’s bedroom, where painted hunting decoys rest peacefully on desktops before we find a couple sleeping in bed, Marge and Norm Gunderson, the Best Actress winning Frances McDormand in her absolutely best performance ever and the implacably calm John Carroll Lynch.  Their polite and orderly world is a complete contrast from the chaotic, crime ridden opening, as a 7-month pregnant police chief is awakened with notification of a triple homicide, but her husband still has time to fix her some eggs for breakfast.  Her thorough investigation of the scene of the crime is a thing of beauty Fargo - I'm not so sure I agree 100% with your policework there Lou .. YouTube (4:02), peppered with small-town banter, where the crunch of the snow can be heard under her feet, and the endlessly snowy landscape is exactly the same looking in all directions.  Again the contrast between the amateurish local police investigation and her more professional instincts are stunning, especially as she recreates in her mind exactly what happened out there the night before, identifying her suspects based on footprints left in the snow as the big fella and the little fella.  This is a film that put independent filmmaking back on the map, as the Coens wrote, directed, edited, and produced their own movies, always having final cut, making a film packed with picturesque sequences and charming characters that exude local color, where many may think speech is being exaggerated, but some of the characters needed no dialect coaches, including the two local girls (“Go Bears!”) interviewed by Marge who couldn’t be more irresistibly authentic Fargo Hookers - YouTube (1:16).  It’s this exquisite treatment of northern flavor that endears this film for time immemorial, as the Coen Brothers grew up in a suburb outside Minneapolis and are certainly familiar with all the pertinent details.  Most endearing, however, is the close-knit relationship between Norm and Marge, living a kind of calm that represents the moral center of the movie.   

People are often seen as tiny ants overwhelmed by an immense landscape that all but engulfs them, where the abundance of snow in the picture, used to such chillingly effect by cinematographer Roger Deakins, reflects the barren interior world of Jerry Lundergaard, a wayward soul who’s lost in the wilderness and can’t find his way back home.  The puzzled expression on his face reflects his disconnection to the world around him, where his job and his family mean so little to him, always left wanting more.  William H. Macy, of course, is brilliant as the wormy creature who’s in over his head, caught in the many traps he’s set for himself.  But it’s Frances McDormand as Marge who steals the thunder, one of the most beloved and well developed characters throughout the entire Coen repertoire, a tenacious small town girl who relies on cunning and common sense to help keep her grounded through this depraved moral abyss, where the entire cast is exceptional and the Coens won an Oscar for the Best Original Screenplay.  Technically, this may be the Coen’s best directed film, as the virtuosity on display is impressively restrained, yet clearly all the assembled pieces beautifully fit together, where the supposed ease and simplicity of the crime only veers further and further out of control, perfectly captured by the eerie moodiness of Peter Stormare’s veiled brutality, entangling each of the hapless men in their own bloody madness.  A film where decent and ordinary people are caught up in extraordinary circumstances, what’s especially memorable is the brilliance of the nuanced Midwest characterizations expressed throughout, where we see hostesses, barmaids, hotel receptionists, and waitresses all gush with friendly smiles while just below the surface a murky world of evil lurks unsuspectingly.  Despite the icy visualization, this remains one of the warmest, most tender works the Coens ever made, filled with a kind of understated humility that is simply indescribable, as after solving the crime of the century from their neck of the woods, Marge offers no words for herself but thinks only of her husband, a truly exceptional work that retains a power all of its own, something you won’t find anywhere else.  Siskel & Ebert both listed the film as their #1 film of the year, SISKEL & EBERT MOVIE REVIEW -- "FARGO" (1996) YouTube (6:33).

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