EMPIRE ESSAY: Fargo Review

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Jerry Lundegaard's inept crime falls apart due to his and his henchmen's bungling and the persistent police work of pregnant Marge Gunderson.


Fargo kicks off with a title-card announcing that the movie is based on a true story. Ten minutes into the heady brew of blackmail and dismemberment, it becomes increasingly clear that we are watching a fiction, a fact born out by the end credits disclaimer
invoking the "No similarity to actual persons is intended or should be inferred" clause. The discrepancy is indicative of the anomalies that infuse Fargo. At once stylised yet painfully realistic, funny yet horrific, heartless yet warm-hearted, this is a film full of contradictions and contrasts that coalesce into a riveting whole. Unlike most of the films on this list, Fargo doesn't unravel in an oppressive city. From the opening image of one car towing another through a blizzard, the murder is located in the frozen wastes of a Northern Minnesota small town where the furious heat of passionate crime seems nigh on impossible. A bright, white heart of darkness.

"That whiteness and weirdness was important to us," noted Joel. "We talked with Roger Deakins (the film's cinematographer) about these landscapes, where you couldn't really see where the horizon was, where the ground melted into the sky. We put everything else aside and didn't shoot until we got that feeling, but it was nerve-wracking."
Walking in a winter murderland — the shooting of the outdoor scenes was continually relocated from Minnesota, North Dakota and Canada as the increasingly warm weather melted the snow — the Coens hatch a twisted, jet black premise. Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (the excellent Macey) hires two thugs Carl Showalter (the excellent Buscemi) and Gaer Grimsrud (the excellent Stormare) to kidnap his wife with the idea of eliciting the ransom from her father to get himself out of debt.

Fargo is a film about disorganised crime. Rejecting notions of a cunning plan conjured up by criminal masterminds, the perps are failures and fuck-ups. Moreover, rather than have the investigation headed up by a Popeye Doyle or a Detective Somerset, the Coens place heavily pregnant, endlessly ebullient Marge Gunderson, police chief of Brainerd, at the crest of the crime wave.
" She wears a funny hat and walks funny but is not a clown," explained Joel about the role played by his wife. "We wanted
her as far away as possible from the cliched cop. Marge and Jerry are both very banal, like the interiors and the landscape. But she is banal in a good way, a good person where he is evil. We wanted to give them everyday concerns. Being pregnant: you can't get more ordinary. In movies you may not see them, but there are all kinds of pregnant cops."

Marge's ordinariness is played to the hilt (she wants to catch the killer but nothing gets in the way of lunch) and her ungainliness stems less from her physical condition and more from her implacable hearty demeanour; but it all masks deceptively astute homespun acumen and detective skills. With McDormand (who won the Oscar) steering just the right side between character quirk and condescension — McDormand described Marge as "Minnesota Nice" — she emerges as that unusual figure in the Coen's canon: a true innocent.

However, there are some particularly Coen-esque moments — a crime illuminated only by car headlights a la Blood Simple — and humour: the bizarre aside in which Marge hooks up with an old school friend who reveals that his story of recent widowerhood is fantasy; as Carl buries the ransom money (which is actually never recovered) he checks from side to side in this featureless, empty landscape to see if anyone is looking. Like most Coens fare, the film also delights in language, yet rather than create the glossary of gangsterisms that course through Miller's Crossing, the dialogue is dominated by singsongy, Scando-styled chit chat (where every sentence ends in "ja?") which stands in direct odds with the heinous crimes that surround it.

Where Fargo strays from the Brothers' usual grimness is in its emotional core. The film finds a deceptively affectionate centre in its big hearted heroine and, in particular, the brief but tellingly sketched relationship with her artist-husband Norm "Son of a" Gunderson: as the couple, snuggle up in bed celebrating Norm's minor triumph of selling a bird painting for a three-cent stamp, Marge's admission that she can not comprehend the desperation of the criminals lends Fargo a redemptive state of grace. It's a warmth that is rare in the Coen brothers and, perhaps even rarer in the annals of the crime movie.

Witty, superbly shot and brilliantly acted. Terrific.