The Coen Brothers Strike Again With 'Fargo.'
By Stacey Richter
WHEN I SAW a commercial for Fargo, I was surprised to hear it called "the new comedy from the Coen Brothers." I'd already seen the movie and it hadn't occurred to me to lump it in the same category as Happy Gilmore. To label Fargo a comedy is sort of like labeling Reservoir Dogs or Five Easy Pieces a comedy. It had funny moments, but mostly it's violent and disturbing--a thriller with a liberal dose of comic relief that doesn't wholly fall into any category.
This willingness of the Coen brothers to wander between genres--to mix elements of comedy and suspense movies--is part of what gives Fargo its strength. With wit and imagination, the filmmakers show a rare respect for the intelligence of their audience. In Fargo, no matter how many movies you've seen, you won't know what's going to happen next. There are no weakly drawn characters who appear just in time to be slaughtered, no car chases ending with feats of daring, no police chief with a mid-life crisis and a wife suing for divorce. Instead, there's a creepy used car salesmen, a villain who weeps at the soaps and a pregnant chief of police with a house-husband who gets up at the dawn to fix her breakfast. Nothing's prefabricated, and every scene in this movie seems fresh.
Fargo claims to be based on a true story, though the standard disclaimer--"any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental..."--appears in the credits, so I'm not certain how much, if any, of the story is true. Whatever the case, it's a tale of ordinary proportions. Jerry Lundegaard (W.H. Macy) is a used car salesman in financial trouble. He arranges to have some hoodlums (psychotic ones, as it turns out) kidnap his wife. She's from a wealthy family and he hopes to keep most of the ransom money for himself.
The Coen brothers have a knack for casting, and Macy is unforgettably creepy as the car salesman Lundegaard. Lundegaard is so nervous, stupid and insincere that it's no wonder his kidnapping plan, barely logical to begin with, gets out of control. Events in this movie are driven by the characters' motivations rather than following the standard set of instructions that come with Hollywood movies (for example, any vegetable stand within two feet of the curb must be knocked over in a chase scene). Thus, Jerry's used car salesman's ability to block out everyone's interests but his own helps set the events of the film into motion.
Similarly, the character and temperament of Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, in a flawless performance), the Chief of Police of a small town where the hoodlums do something bad, determines how the crime gets solved. Gunderson is really, really nice. All the guys call her "Margie." She's pregnant and eating for two. When she goes after the bad guys, it's with a patient, maternal sluggishness.
Another sort of "character" in the movie is the geographical area where it's set, around Minnesota and the Dakotas (hence the name Fargo). As the Coen brothers see it, the inhabitants of this part of the country have a sort of dopey, taciturn evasiveness. Everyone there is really nice in a contrived sort of way, and they fall all over themselves to agree with each other. It's basically a New Yorker's view of the Have A Nice Day culture of the Midwest (and West, and Southwest). The chief of police questions suspects with the perky gusto of a second-grade teacher, and repeats the same corny joke about "carrying a heavy load." The characters speak with the Swedish-sounding accent of the region. (It's in this department of poking fun of the northern Midwest that Fargo approaches being a comedy, albeit a very dark one.)
It's also in the representation of the northern Midwest that Fargo reveals a stark, icy beauty. The story takes place during the winter, and the characters and their cars move around in bleak, snowy landscapes. Sometimes in all the whiteness it's impossible to tell where the land meets the sky. Certain shots in this movie look like minimalist paintings, with dots of line and color on a white field--but the dots are cars or streetlights, and the white is a snow-covered parking lot. This sort of hazy landscape, where up and down are confused and one field of snow blends into the next, ends up being an apt metaphor for the dumb, senseless malice of Lundegaard and his hired thugs. In a landscape where it's impossible to tell land from sky, thoughtless people do stupid things for no discernible reason.
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