FARGO
Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Produced by Ethan Coen
Cinematography by Roger Deakins
Music by Carter Burwell
Starring William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, and Steve Buscemi
USA, 1996

GRADE: C+

"I wouldn't live there if you paid me."
David Byrne (Talking Heads)
"The Big Country"

Caveat: I've never had all that much use for the Coen brothers.

There. I've said it. Of their previous pictures, I like Miller's Crossing the best, with Raising Arizona trailing behind -- but then the bottom falls out. Blood Simple looked to me like a whole lot of stylish murk, and I thought the self-consciously bizarre Barton Fink had put me off their films for good (I stayed away from The Hudsucker Proxy and almost forgot it existed).

And then comes Fargo, which looked like it couldn't possibly miss its mark, from the snowy concept embodied in the so-perfect title to the deadpan Minnesota wit punctuating a fashionably grisly crime drama (the wit is yours courtesy the Coens, who hail from Minneapolis). But not more than 10 to 15 minutes into the movie, I got that sinking feeling -- I'm not having a good time.

Of course, everybody else in the theater was having the gasping, chuckling time of their lives, which only suggests that your mileage may vary. For me, the basic (and ostensibly "true") storyline of Fargo is just about enough drama to carry an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The rest of the movie is kept afloat by that famous Coen wit, which this time consists of a repetitive joke about Midwesterners of Scandinavian descent leading more or less idyllic lives, eating Hardee's burgers, and saying "you betcha" a lot. When the joke works -- and it's to the credit of stars Frances McDormand and William H. Macy that it works as many times as it does -- it's a pretty funny joke, but it wears a little thin.

Something's rotten in Denmark, er, I mean Brainerd, the home of Paul Bunyan, when a state trooper and two other victims are found dead in the snow alongside a lonely stretch of Minnesota highway. It falls to very pregnant local policewoman Marge Gunderson (McDormand) to investigate the crime, but the audience already knows exactly what happened. It all has to do with car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, who's got himself in a bit of an unspecified financial fix. In order to make money fast, he schemes to hire a couple of thugs to kidnap his wife and extort a sizable ransom from his loaded father-in-law. Poor typecast Steve Buscemi plays Carl Showalter, the "smart" thug, and Peter Stormare is the strong, silent type. Their shenanigans, played against Macy's cold sweats, account for the black part of the comedy.

As police procedurals go, they don't get any more laid back than this one. In one of Fargo's two really good sequences (the other one shows you what finally happens to that ransom), McDormand rather matter-of-factly recreates the triple-homicide situation that planted the bodies in the snow. McDormand has some kind of comic talent, but since Marge's ensuing investigation is fairly rote (her one good clue puts her on the right track) it's a relief to cut back to the criminals, since at least things start to happen again. But just when the situation gets a little tense -- that is, when the Coens juice it up a little and the movie starts working -- we cut right back to the cops, shouting "Yah!" at each other. The humor is obviously meant as a chaser for the increasingly gruesome goings-on, but over and over again?

Overall, the movie is weirdly yet comfortably detached. Fargo's heart starts pounding a little harder when Jerry realizes that Marge may be onto him, but he's rendered impotent by the eventual turn of events. For all Macy's admirable work at bringing the character to an apex of bland desperation, we're unable to participate in his misery. The level-headed Marge gains our sympathy right away, but she's never in danger, or party to a real conflict. And while you might expect that the crime drama and the comedy would sync up in some wildly unlikely denouement, you'd be wrong. The most outrageous image in the whole film should be either horrifying or hilarious, and the way the Coens set it up, it looks like it's going to be both. In fact, it's neither.

If Fargo could make up its mind what kind of movie it wanted to be, it might find meaning in its tangle of surface caricatures and impeccable technical stylistics. At movie's end Marge, who's relaxing in bed with her husband, sighs contentedly: "Heck, Norm, we're doing pretty good." That line begs the question of how the Coens really feel about these characters. They hedge it enough that it's hard to be sure, and I'll bet that if you asked, they'd tell you that gosh, they really like these people. They're from this territory, after all, and it's possible that they find Marge's lucky naivete charming, even if it's not something they personally aspire to.

But the Fargo of the title is less someplace you'd find on a map than a mythical American landscape -- a la Terry Gilliam's Brazil, it's sort of a state of mind. The impeccable cinematography portrays Jerry as a man freezing in the snowy barrens of his own inner existence, a wretch who cares little for his family and who can't clear the ice off his windshield without popping a vein somewhere in his brain. In this movie, middle America -- the pleasant but bland existence -- is part of the metaphor for everything that's wrong with his life. Presumably the Coens used to live there, they know the lay of the land, and they're never going back.


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