Thursday, March 27, 2014

Fargo (1996)

Director: Joel Coen                                          Writers: Ethan & Joel Coen
Film Score: Carter Burwell                                Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare

For my money, the Coen Brothers have had a few duds in their career, Miller’s Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy and A Serious Man, but then so do most filmmakers. What distinguishes Joel and Ethan Coen from those others, however, is that their hits are absolutely beyond peer. They were finally, and justifiably, rewarded for their efforts in 2007 with Oscars for best screenplay, best director and best picture for No Country for Old Men. But Fargo did not go unnoticed and was nominated for a slew of Oscars, including victories for the brothers for best screenplay and Frances McDormand for her performance in a leading role. It was the start of a string of hits that included such brilliant films as O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Man Who Wasn’t There. Peter Travers' essay in The A List is fairly breezy and not worthy of note except to understand that the Coen’s don’t play fair. They lie and deceive and it’s best not to take what they say seriously. Their films, on the other hand, are quite worthy of serious analysis.

The film begins on a lonely highway in the winter. William H. Macy goes into a bar in Fargo and meets Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare to give them a car from his lot and confirms their plan to kidnap his wife. Macy has been embezzling funds from his father in law’s dealership and needs the money to get out from under it. But that’s the last time that anything goes right. When a real estate deal that Macy is attempting to make actually goes through, he can’t contact Buscemi in time and they wind up kidnapping her anyway. Then, on the way out of town Buscemi and Stormare are stopped by a state trooper and, before Buscemi can talk him out of a ticket, Stormare shoots him in the head. But as they are dragging the trooper back to his vehicle a car passes by and the two people inside see them, so Stormare runs them down and kills them both. It’s only then that Minnesota police officer Frances McDormand is called in to investigate the case, and where things really go bad.

Steve Buscemi, who carries most of the first half of the film, is something of a stock player for the Coens and had brief roles in Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink before this. Here he plays a sort of Greek chorus in the front seat of the car railing at Stormare for not talking and keeping him company. Stormare is the psychopath of the film, but still manages to keep enough of clarity of mind to keep from getting caught. Buscemi . . . not so much. William H. Macy, who was deservedly nominated for a supporting actor Oscar, threatens to steal the show. His Minnesota car dealer is spot on, and his twisted thought processes are a marvel to watch. The denouement with him is tremendous. But the film belongs to Joel Coen’s wife, Academy Award winner Frances McDormand. Her matter-of-fact Minnesota accent is hilarious and her equally blasé investigation is relentless and successful. Add to that that she’s pregnant during the entire film and it ratchets up the humor even more.

The script is excellent and deserving of the Oscar. It’s the blackest of black comedies and yet works on every level, equally horrifying and humorous. But it’s the actors who sell it, and in addition to the principals are superb supporting character actors. McDormand’s husband is played with precision blandness by John Carroll Lynch. Kristin Rudrüd as Macy’s kidnapped wife also had some great moments. But the actor who is most memorable in support is the late, great Harve Presnell. He’s the perfect curmudgeon and foil for Macy. The rest of the usual suspects are also on the crew, Roger Deakins behind the camera and Carter Burwell penning the film score. The Coen Brothers have had a tremendous trajectory in their career, and this was the breakout film that they needed to finally give them critical as well as popular success. Fargo remains one of their most popular films and for one very good reason. It’s fantastic.

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